Thu. Sep 28th, 2023

About a year ago, the tragic death of a young Kurdish Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini while in police custody ignited a series of protests that shook Iran and its authoritarian government to its core, marking one of the most significant challenges to its rule in decades.

Mahsa Amini, a mere 22 years old, had been apprehended for allegedly not wearing her hijab correctly, a religious requirement in Iran’s conservative Islamic Republic. Tragically, she lost her life, purportedly due to multiple head injuries. Iranian authorities, however, asserted her demise resulted from a heart attack, a claim that was met with widespread disbelief among her family and the Iranian populace, who accused the government of a cover-up.

Initially centered on women’s rights, the protests rapidly evolved into a broader demand for the downfall of the entire Iranian regime. These demonstrations triggered a harsh response from the government, including internet blackouts, thousands of arrests, and several executions. However, they did not succeed in toppling the regime, and instead, the government intensified its repressive measures. Nevertheless, various forms of resistance continue among Iranians.

“One year on, Iranian protesters continue to demonstrate their unwavering commitment, risking their lives to oppose the Islamic Republic,” said Behnam ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

Arrests, surveillance, and executions have reportedly surged in the months following the start of the protests, known to many Iranians as the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. Human Rights Watch reported increased pressure on peaceful dissidents in the lead-up to the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death. Iranian security forces conducted raids on the homes of women’s rights activists and lawyers, resulting in numerous arrests.

Saleh Nikbakht, the lawyer for Amini’s family, was charged with “propaganda against the state” and released on bail pending a court hearing. Family members and lawyers representing dissidents who were executed also found themselves under arrest.

“Iranian authorities are using their standard playbook of applying maximum pressure on peaceful dissidents ahead of the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death,” warned Tara Sepehri Far, a senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Despite the government’s heavy-handed approach, women in various parts of Iran are refusing to wear the hijab, with photos and videos showing them in cafes and malls with their hair uncovered. This act of defiance comes with significant risks, including arrest, fines, and physical attacks. Some businesses, however, defy government orders to turn away female customers not wearing a hijab in solidarity with these women.

While a full-blown revolution has yet to materialize, there are noticeable shifts in Iranian society. Sanam Vakil, director of the MENA program at Chatham House, emphasized that despite repression, Iranians are engaging in protests that extend beyond the anti-hijab movement, including demonstrations related to water shortages, high inflation, and economic pressure.

“Despite the state’s ability to continue to be repressive, people are at the same time, in different ways, fighting back,” she stated.

As the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death approaches, Iranian authorities are vocally denouncing the protests, indicating their apprehension about potential unrest. Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ political bureau, has framed the protests as a conspiracy by enemies of the Islamic Revolution.

While there have been visible changes, such as women appearing without hijabs or wearing tank tops in Tehran and other cities, these shifts remain far from consolidated achievements. Iran’s government has even imposed stricter hijab rules recently, deploying moral security police to patrol the streets.

Despite these challenges, there remains a lack of political organization and leadership among the protesters. Arash Azizi, an Iranian historian and analyst, noted that without political structure, these protests are unlikely to lead to political change. Nonetheless, he also highlighted that the fundamental issues leading to protests in Iran, such as economic turmoil and government oppression, remain unresolved.

“Resistance therefore continues,” Azizi concluded, underscoring the resilience of the Iranian people in their ongoing struggle for change.