The crackdown was increasing, the screws of repression getting tighter, in the weeks leading up to the first death anniversary of Mahsa Amini, also known as Jina Amini.
The 22-year-old’s death in police custody on September 16, 2022, sparked protests across Iran for months until the authorities responded with brutal tactics, forcing protesters indoors or into exile. But with the anniversary of Amini’s death approaching, the regime was taking no chances.
Weeks ahead of the one-year milestone, the families of protesters killed by security forces were barred from holding commemorative gatherings at their graves, in what Amnesty International called the “cruellest restrictions”. Several women’s rights activists were also detained and accused of planning events to mark the death anniversary, according to Human Rights Watch.
A year ago, Amini was arrested by Iran’s Gasht-e-Ershad – or guidance patrols, better known as the “morality police” – for “improperly” wearing the mandatory hijab.
As enraged female protesters took to the streets, many defying the hijab rules – some burning their headscarves and cutting locks of hair – there were reports suggesting the Gasht-e-Ershad had been suspended.
But since mid-July, the morality police squads have been back on Iran’s streets, aided by other security forces. In early August, President Ebrahim Raisi took to the airwaves to tell the Iranian people they should not “worry” because, he promised, “the removal of the hijab will definitely come to an end”.
A new “Hijab and Chastity” bill is now working its way into law, with a package of repressive measures, including exorbitant fines for hijab offenders and increased police surveillance.
Iranians have a lot to worry about, including the rising cost of living, hyperinflation, corruption, economic collapse, and isolation under international sanctions while the regime plays hardball in nuclear negotiations.
The prospect of women revealing their hair in public does not top the list of concerns for most Iranians.
But for their unpopular president, it’s a major worry. The veil in Iran symbolises much more than just a hair-covering garment. The death in custody of one young woman, hailing from the marginalised Kurdish-Sunni periphery of the official Shiite state, exposed the weakness of the Islamic Republic four decades after the 1979 revolution.
A year after Amini’s demise, that chapter in Iran’s post-revolutionary history is still being written and it could have dramatic consequences for the country – as well as the international community.
‘A very fragile moment for Iran’
Since the protests erupted last year, Iranian authorities have used a combination of old and new measures to suppress public anti-regime displays.
Security forces killed at least 537 protesters, the majority in the first months of the protests, according to an April 4 report by Oslo-based NGO, Iran Human Rights. At least seven men have been executed in connection to the protests following “hasty proceedings”, noted a UN-appointed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission.
Read moreIran executes men linked to Mahsa Amini protests
The appointment of the fact-finding mission on November 24 was hailed as a “landmark” by rights groups and came after intense negotiations at the Geneva-based Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In its first oral report presented in July, the fact-finding mission noted that Iranian authorities had not yet responded to repeated requests for a visit. “Even today, ten months after the events, no official data is publicly available regarding those arrested, detained, charged or convicted in connection with the protests,” the team noted.
In other words, it was business as usual for the Iranian regime after yet another crackdown on yet another round of protests that have been erupting with increased frequency over the past decade.
But this time, some unfamiliar suppression tactics were also applied, and they were disquieting.
As the number of defiantly unveiled women in public soared, the Islamic regime targeted prominent female influencers, including actresses, with dubious psychiatric diagnoses. As judges sentenced women to treatment for “anti-family personality disorder”, Iranian mental health organisations warned that the authorities were “exploiting psychiatry”.
Read moreIran forces women defying hijab ban to get ‘psychiatric treatment’
A year after Amini’s death in custody, the figures may be disputed, but the facts are clear. “The government has very effectively crushed the protests that erupted last year. But anger at the regime is even worse,” said Barbara Slavin, distinguished fellow at the Washington DC-based Stimson Center. “The regime has been very effective in terms of repression, but it’s been a total failure at improving the lives of ordinary Iranians.”
The explosive mix of public rage and regime suppression makes it hard to say who really won the day, much less the year. “It’s a mixed picture: on the one hand, society is miserable, angry, restive. On the other hand, Iranians have shown that the regime no longer calls the shots,” said Slavin. “It’s a very fragile moment for Iran.”
‘Women, Life, Freedom’
The fragility was exposed last year by women, the officially fragile 51 percent of Iran’s 87 million population. Adopting the rallying cry, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” – Women, Life, Freedom – Iran’s women led the latest charge against the regime with a mix of courage, creativity and doggedness that electrified the world.
Since the 1979 revolution, women have been used as a political symbol by the Islamic Republic, with the veil promoted as the most manifest proclamation of its values. More than 40 years later, that political symbolism provided the seed for its own unraveling.
“Heavily discriminating against women in all aspects of life, the Islamic Republic’s policies on compulsory veil emerges throughout the years as the symbol of its control over women’s bodies and life. Regardless, Iranian women have remained courageously outspoken for their rights, while having paid and continuing to pay a high price for their dissent,” said Azadeh Pourzand, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East and Global Order.
While the government is pushing for the adoption of the “Hijab and Chastity” law, Slavin doubts it will end the regime’s worries. “Overall, the government has lost the battle for the obligatory hijab – they can’t arrest all the women going around without hijab,” she explained. “They’ve lost the battle, they simply refuse to admit it.”
Despite the tightened restrictions, many Iranian women are putting up a fight, with some displaying exceptional bravery. Weeks before Amini’s death anniversary, firebrand Iranian labour activist Sepideh Qoliyan got a warning by a criminal court judge that she could face additional charges if she continued to appear in court without a veil.
It came a month after an earlier court hearing was cancelled because Qoliyan refused to wear the mandatory hijab. The 28-year-old activist remains in prison while she fights two separate charges, including insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Meanwhile Nazila Maroufian, the Iranian-Kurdish journalist who interviewed Amini’s father last year, walked out of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on August 13 and posted a photograph on social media of herself without a headscarf and the slogan, “Don’t accept slavery, you deserve the best.”
She was promptly detained again, released on bail and then re-arrested. On September 4, an Iranian judge sentenced Maroufian to a year in prison, ensuring the now-prominent journalist would be locked behind bars on Amini’s first death anniversary.
New generation rejects ‘patience’
Iranian women and girls taking to the streets were immediately joined by male protesters who grasped the symbolism of the veil in their demand for total change. The unofficial anthem of the Women, Life, Freedom movement was written by a young man and recorded in his bedroom in the Iranian coastal city of Babolsar.
Shervin Hajipour wove tweets of protest-supporters into the lyrics of his song, Baraye, or “For” in English. He was arrested and released on bail when he won a special Grammy award in February for his powerful, haunting single.
The song title comes from #Baraye, a hashtag Iranians used to explain why they were protesting. One of the tweets in the song simply states, “For yearning for an ordinary life” – a central demand of the primarily young protesters.
The Gen Z component of the protests was particularly noteworthy, distinguishing it from previous Iranian protest movements, explained Iran-born and UK-based Pourzand.
At 38, Pourzand belongs to the “Green movement” generation of protesters who took to the streets to challenge the results of the 2009 presidential elections, which denied a victory to the reformist candidate.
“My generation thought patience is a value, that incremental change is a value worth holding on to,” she explained. “We thought we had to pick between the bad and worse. ‘Better to work for the bad – what if, what comes next is the worse,’ describes the reform movement.”
Iran’s Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2010 – or 1375-1389 in the Iranian calendar and dubbed Dahe Hashtadi (“the Eighties”) in Persian – displayed the impertinence and impatience of youth. This included a total rejection of the post-1979 edifice, complete with ripping and burning posters of Supreme Leader Khamenei.
The leaderless, social media-driven nature of the movement raised immediate doubts over whether the young protesters had the mobilisation capacity to topple the regime.
But in their failure to bring immediate change, Generation Dahe Hashtadi did not fare any worse than their parents, analysts concede a year later. What’s more, in a country with a long protest culture, they fundamentally altered the discourse by calling for a dismantling of the republic itself.
“They got together, they figured a message quickly and effectively, and the whole world heard it,” said Pourzand. “’Women, Life, Freedom’ divided Iran’s history into a ‘before’ and ‘after’. I don’t think the regime can take it back to before this movement.”
Referring to the Iranian saying, “the fire under the ashes”, Slavin says the smoldering anger cannot be extinguished by a deeply discredited regime using the old repression techniques. “Iranians understand this is a long struggle, they are very determined,” she explained.
A year after Amini’s death, the state of the republic appears to be as frail as that of the 84-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. “People have been calling ‘Death to the dictator’ for the past four to five years. They hate him,” said Slavin.
Khamenei’s most likely successor list includes President Raisi and the octogenarian supreme leader’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei. Both men lack popular support, according to analysts. “Khamenei has been trying to arrange for his son to succeed him. The hypocrisy of the regime is beyond all calculations,” said Slavin. “Someday it will fall and people will celebrate – just when and how it happens, people can’t predict.”