Sunday , 3 December 2023

“I’m the same as Mahsa. And I want my freedom”: anger at Iran’s regime spills onto the streets

economist – Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died on September 16th in Tehran after being detained and allegedly beaten by Iran’s morality police for wearing an “improper” hijab – exposing too much of her head or neck. Large protests erupted throughout the country. Many women burned their headscarves and cut off their hair. Protesters chanted “death to the dictator”. There are reports that dozens of demonstrators have died in clashes with police.

In recent days the authorities have shut down internet access – and also reportedly ordered the morality police off the streets, at least in the capital – in the hope of quelling the protests. But the public anger that sparked them continues to rumble.

“Everyone was afraid in my mother’s day. We aren’t afraid now”
Female student, Shiraz, 22, September 20th

I can hear the sounds of gunfire in the street. It’s like it was two years ago. They are going out to kill everyone. I can’t hear you clearly. Because of the internet.

(The line reconnects.)

I just had a call from a friend who was with the protesters. Police have been shooting from people’s apartments and from the rooftops. The word on social media was that we should go out at 7pm, but the police knew about it and were waiting for us.

So many people came out in Mahsa Amini’s hometown, Saqqez. And they killed so many people. Here in Shiraz, people are going out in support of them because they want freedom.

We’ve heard President Ebrahim Raisi saying that he’s sorry and that Mahsa was like a daughter. But he’s lying. If he was really sorry, he would tell the police to stop shooting and harassing us. But this morning they were at it again, questioning women and girls – “Why are you wearing this?” – and telling them to dress properly. It’s just a big lie.

Death and defiance Opening image: Mahsa Amini was in a coma and later died after allegedly being beaten by police enforcing Iran’s strict dress code. From top to bottom: The morality police have cracked down on the streets, in universities and in cafés and restaurants. Cutting one’s own hair has become a symbol of protest. Demonstrators blocked some of Tehran’s main arteries

My mother told me everyone was afraid in her day. But we aren’t afraid now. This morning, I walked through the streets without a scarf and I wasn’t scared because I’m really the same as Mahsa. And I want my freedom. You can see many women in restaurants and cafés no longer wear scarves. Of course, when we see the police we’re afraid, but we try to get over it. And you know – we have an app to warn people when the morality police are patrolling nearby. It’s called Gershad, and it’s a Google map that you can update with their whereabouts.

What happened to Mahsa has happened to many girls. Often they come for girls who are alone in the street and put them in their vans. Then no one knows where they are. That has happened to so many friends of mine. It doesn’t matter to the police if your hijab is problematic or not. They just get you and then ask you to pay them money. And you have to pay them. If they catch me in the market, they can ask me for 3m rial (about $70). If they question me and I don’t answer, I’ll have to pay more. Once they stopped me in Isfahan and asked me for my phone number. They warned me that if they caught me three times, I’d end up in prison. And I wasn’t even wearing a “bad” hijab. I’d just come from university where we have to wear a proper black hijab.

Women are leading the charge. They’re willing to go down for the cause

Things have got much worse under Raisi. They check you at the gates of the university and when you enter the dorms. They have people patrolling the university on motorbikes. There are so many morality-police vans on the streets now, too, white with red and green stripes. You used to see them a lot in conservative cities like Mashhad and Isfahan, but we had more freedom in Shiraz. Now they’re all over Shiraz, too. And they’re patrolling in emergency vehicles, too. They’re not really police. They’re basijis – Islamic militiamen – just young boys with guns in their hands. My mother said it feels like things have gone back to the time when they toppled the shah.

They’re cracking down on the cafés and restaurants, too. Owners say they’ve been told not to let women enter wearing a bad hijab. So now the baristas approach you and ask you to put it on right. And they’ve stopped cafés playing songs. They can only play piano without voices. A week ago, I asked the owner of a café why and he said the morality police had been in and asked him not to play music with singers. He had a tiny photo on the wall of a woman without a hijab – you couldn’t really see it, but they asked him to remove it.

Shouting back Pro-government protesters took to the streets, too (top). Hijab-wearing women chanted slogans praising security forces (middle). Their rallies, well supplied with flags, appeared to be orchestrated by the authorities (bottom)

That sort of thing is even happening in taxis. We have an app like Uber and it’s said that their drivers can report you to the police for having a bad hijab. And they have all your personal information so they know how to find you. Some drivers have begun forcing girls to get out because they weren’t wearing a good hijab.

I don’t think anything is going to change, even with the protests. In previous protests, people used to chant for the Pahlavis, the ruling household of the shah. But not this time. We don’t have any alternative. At the end of it all, there will just be a lot of people who will have been shot dead by the police. Parents won’t let children my age go out. And it will be quiet again.

“Many young people have all but lost their faith in religion”
Male journalist, Tehran, September 21st

The clerics created the morality police just after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president from 2005 to 2013, was elected. In the years before Raisi it hadn’t really been that much of an issue. Women could go out without worrying about being chased by the morality police. But you see them a lot now, especially at the entrances to metro stations where they wait for women: the men in black uniforms, the women in black chadors. They also patrol in police vans together – it’s strange, really, you wouldn’t think they’d want to mix. They’ve been cracking down on cultural activities, too, especially cinema. They’ve stopped the production and screening of films that were licensed under Hassan Rouhani, who was president until 2021.

Moral outrage Women have taken off and burnt their headscarves in protest (top). Sympathisers around the world have made bold statements of their own (middle). Anger boiled over at rallies in Turkey and many other countries (bottom)

The country has become more divided. My mother wears a chador and she’s afraid to go out. She fears people will abuse her in the street. There was a knife attack on worshippers in a mosque in Shiraz. There have been cases of angry protesters stabbing basijis and clerics – on the street there’s huge disappointment with the religious authorities. Internally there’s a debate among the clergy and the religious patrols. Some say the hijab is a social necessity and must be observed. Others say the morality police are tarnishing religion.

People expected the religious authorities to call for an investigation into Mahsa’s death or voice their support for the people. But aside from a grand ayatollah, Asadollah Bayat-Zajani, who is hated by the establishment for being a reformist, the seminaries in Qom and Najaf have been silent. Few other religious figures have objected. Many young people have all but lost their faith in religion because of the Islamic Republic’s approach.

“Regime change is what people want”
Male tech professional, Tehran, 34, September 25th

Women are leading the charge. They’re fearless. They’re willing to go down for the cause. They don’t want to be stepping behind men anymore. Sure, men have been deprived of their rights in Iran, but women are really, really deprived of every right. They’re considered…I guess the legal word for it would be chattel. It’s like ownership. And women are tired and don’t want to be playing that role. So they’re on the front lines. They’re taking off their scarves. They’re waving them in front of the anti-riot police. They’re getting beaten up. They have no qualms about doing whatever is necessary to get their goal, which is the end of the regime and equal rights.

The reports of attacks on women for wearing a chador are just rumours made up by the government to discredit the movement. It isn’t about religion. They aren’t anti-Islam. These people who are burning Korans are effectively government agents. They are doing this in order to provoke their own sympathisers. But the people aren’t anti-Islam at all. They’re anti-Islamic Republic. People aren’t against the hijab. They’re against mandatory hijab.

Last year we had riots over lack of water. Three years ago we had riots, serious riots, over the price of petrol. Before that it was about election results. This time it’s the hijab, but that’s just the trigger. Regime change is what people want. An end to the Islamic Republic. People are fed up.■

Nicolas Pelham is The Economist’s Middle East correspondent. In 2019 he was detained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and prevented from leaving the country for seven weeks. Read his account of the detention here

images: getty / alamy / zuma