The death of a young Iranian woman in police custody sparked what activists are now calling an “uprising,” against which Iranian authorities are using methods of abuse perfected over the past four decades to silence dissent.
The women of Iran have emerged as the dominant force in the protests, and are taking matters into their own hands, bringing together various critical elements of society all insisting on change.
Protests broke out in mid-September, after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in police custody following her arrest by Iran’s Guidance Patrol, also known as the Morality Police, for allegedly defying the Islamic Republic’s conservative laws. In response to the mass anger, the Iranian regime fiercely cracked down on anti-government demonstrations, killing 244 protesters and arresting more than 12,500 people, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA).
From arbitrary arrests and detention to forced confessions and torture, Iran is still using the same tactics it used in the 2019 uprising and the 1979 revolution to punish activists and those who oppose Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s regime.
A human rights campaign activist, who requested anonymity, told Newsweek that violence is the “greatest instrument” that the regime typically uses to repress protesters, but now the ruling regime has added new tactics, many of which are extreme and widely abusive, in an effort to end protests across the country.
“Mass arrests have increased even compared to the last waves of protests,” the activist said. “The regime’s handling of the media is different — the government quite deliberately spreads misinformation to confuse the protesters.”
Iranian security forces are also banning anyone from taking photos or videos of the protests, and those who violate such rules are arrested, a Tehran-based protester, who asked to be identified as Mehdi for fear of reprisal, told Newsweek.
“And [there is also] the location-based Internet blockade,” the activist said. “In the places where there are larger protests, the Internet is more restricted.”
Majid Sadeghpour, a director at the Organization of Iranian American Communities, told Newsweek that the regime is using the same torture techniques on its opponents as it has since it rose to power more than 40 years ago.
Sadeghpour, who left Iran a few years after his brother was executed following the 1979 revolution, confirmed that some forms of torture instituted under the former Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime are commonly used against protesters. These include rape and sexual violence, waterboarding, amputations, electrocutions, and solitary confinements.
“Those are some of the reasons why you see the protests the way you see them today,” Sadeghpour told Newsweek, “because of the desire of the people to change this medieval behavior towards mankind.”
“This behavior is particularly severe towards women,” he added. “They are subjecting women to systemic misogyny in every aspect of law.” In the video above, two women are holding up their headscarves as they stop traffic briefly, while one person in the car filming that moment can be heard saying “well done.”
Protesters are being treated violently while being arrested, according to Mehdi. They are also being beaten and taken to undisclosed locations where they would be abused and detained in “inhumane conditions,” Sepideh, a 32-year-old protester based in Tehran, told Newsweek.
Two of Sepideh’s friends were arrested during the protests, including one person who was placed in solitary confinement after being taken from his home for his “activism.”
“In both cases for some days the families and friends were unaware of their conditions and where they were kept,” she said. “Both have been released on bail after 2-3 weeks.”
Some detained women experienced similar abuses, according to accounts given to United for Iran. In one account, a 16-year-old girl was tortured in the custody of the Revolutionary Guard in Tabriz, her nose was broken, and guards withheld medical assistance from her.
“We have information about an 18-year-old who, despite his pre-existing condition and spinal disease, was tortured,” the United for Iran activist said of another incident. “We know about torture in pre-trial detention in Qazvin and also in northern Iran.”
Children are not spared in this crackdown, making up 16% of overall deaths of protesters and bystanders during the recent incidents, according to a report by Amnesty International.
“Since the eruption of the uprising on 16 September 2022, Iran’s security forces have killed with absolute impunity at least 23 children and injured many more in a bid to crush the spirit of resistance among the country’s youth and retain their iron grip on power at any cost,” the organization said in the report.
Revolt Spreads As Women Demand Control of Their Lives
So far, the efforts of the regime’s forces have failed to curb the determination of Iranian women to demand change. They not only ignited the protests, but also became leaders of various forms of public resistance across Iran.
Videos posted by 1500tasvir, a Twitter account run by opposition activists, showed groups of women chanting and holding signs during street protests. One video showed two women holding up their headscarves in their hands as they briefly stopped traffic. In the video above, protesters are chanting for women, freedom, and life in the city of Abadan, Iran. 1500tasvir said in the Tweet that security forces fired bullets in the air to disperse the protest for the second time, but demonstrators are going to gather elsewhere.
“While the initial demands of the protesters were abrogation of the Hijab law and clarification of the death of Jina Mahsa Amini,” an human rights activist from United for Iran said, “they are protesting against the whole system.”
Although some protests are small due to heavy security presence in some areas, the activist said that women are still finding new ways to rally. It is now normal to see women on the streets without their headscarves, according to the activist, who said the state is “failing to control the situation.”
Sepideh told Newsweek that although demonstrations in Tehran have been limited to universities and neighborhoods over the past week, women are protesting by going outdoors without the hijab, spray painting anti-government slogans on walls of buildings in the streets, and chanting “death to the dictator” every night.
“It is a revolution!” 18-year-old Noora, from Kerman, Iran, told Newsweek.
Noora, a protester and a member of Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), expressed that she has faith that protesters will overthrow the regime despite the harsh security crackdown. The MEK is an Iranian resistance group that was founded in 1965 by leftist Iranian students who were against the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
“The courage of the people, the solidarity and high spirit of the people are really amazing,” Noora said. “Protests are increasing every day. No one thought the demonstrations would last for a month, but as you can see, it continues and people are not afraid at all.”
“In many cities, such as Rasht, Tehran, and Karaj, protesters force the officers to stand back or take the arrested from their hands [to free them],” she added.
Shahin, a 17-year-old protester from Nazi Abad, a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran, said that Iranians are still standing strong and insisting on the overthrow of the regime.
“The people are no longer afraid of the baton and the gun,” he said. “They are working hand-in-hand for their freedom from the inhumane regime.”
“The people are fed up with this regime,” he added. In the video, above, women can be heard chanting “death to the dictator.”
The woman-centric protests have inspired other crucial segments of Iranian society to revolt as well, including teachers, students, and workers. In the oil sector in the south of Iran workers went on strike, while firefighters rallied in some areas to protest poor working conditions, according to Mehdi.
The scale of those strikes remain unknown, but the United for Iran activist confirmed that “workers in different industries are trying to organize.” He noted that due to “the ban on unions and the internet blockade, it will take some time before they can find each other and form a common plan.”
Children Leading the Way
Schoolchildren are also taking part in the mass revolt, despite their lack of involvement in organized protests over the past 40 years.
“Their rallies in schoolyards and after school hours in the streets challenge the Islamic Republic in a different way than usual,” the human rights activist explained. “The regime finds it difficult to suppress schoolchildren. Society reacts with great anger against it.”
Teachers are also holding strikes in Kurdish areas of the country and in Ardabil, a provincial capital city of more than 500,000 residents in the northwest, to support student rallies and oppose attempts by authorities to silence students. United for Iran confirmed reports that some “school administrators refuse to implement the dogmatic laws of the Islamic Republic and are less strict with students.”
However, not all teachers are supporting the anti-government protests. Some don’t mind seeing their students arrested, according to Mehdi.
“There are many pro-regime teachers that oppose the protests,” Mehdi said, “and some of the teachers ask the regime’s guys to punish, arrest, [and] stand against protestors.”
Can the Pressure Change or Topple the Regime?
Sepideh and Noora are among many Iranian women and girls who want to end the “theocratic” rule in the country and change the Islamic Republic system because it “lost its legitimacy.”
“I want the gender apartheid in the country to end,” Sepideh said. “I want equal rights with men and the right to be part of the decision-making in the country as a secular woman.”
“I want rights for ethnic and sexual minorities,” she added. “I want a non-belligerent foreign policy and sustainable environmental policies.”
Noora said that the core purpose of the protests is to get international recognition for Iranians’ resistance and to demand the establishment of a democratic republic in Iran.
“When I hear the slogans, I understand these things and I really enjoy them,” she said. “Things like shouting for freedom, ‘death to the oppressor,’ be it the Shah or the leader.”
The protests have had impact in Iran and around the world. Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, founder and editor in chief of Tehran Bureau, a news website that reports on corruption in Iran, told Newsweek that the world will challenge the Islamic Republic differently moving forward.
“I think the protests have already pushed the Islamic Republic beyond a point of no return, she explained. “I don’t think even the regime knows what’s next. The status quo is not sustainable.”
Protests have occurred in different parts of the world in solidarity with the women of Iran. Meanwhile, The Council of the European Union announced sanctions against figures in the Morality Police and the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) on October 17, citing human rights violations and Iran’s “violent response” to protesters.
The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the sanctions, and said in a statement on Wednesday that the Council’s decision was “based on baseless accusations,” adding that the restrictive measure “is an explicit example of interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
According to Pardis Mahdavi, the provost and executive vice president of the University of Montana, the Iranian protests are strong enough to bring about regime change, primarily as a result of international solidarity and the sense of togetherness felt among Iranians.
Mahdavi told Newsweek that the protests at the moment can best be labeled a “large-scale resistance” that is on its way to become a revolution.
“This is a truly intergenerational movement, unlike any we have seen before,” Mahdavi said, “people of an array of socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds are coming together in agreement over their dissatisfaction with the regime.”
“There is more support around the world at this time,” she added. “They have built large enough coalitions and are now discussing a transitional government. These are all signs of progress to revolution.”
Newsweek reached out to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.