Iran is in the midst of the most significant protest movement in years — and it is being lead by women and girls.
The spark that ignited this movement was the murder of 22 year old Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing her headscarf. She was beaten to death in police custody.
Protests erupted throughout the country, with women and school aged girls audaciously flaunting laws around dress codes. It is a feminist led uprising against the ultra-conservative government lead by Ebrahim Raisi and, as some argue, against the Islamic revolutionary system that has governed Iran since 1979.
In this episode, we are joined by Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and commentator and host of the Iran Podcast. We discuss how these protests started and then spread to become an intersectional movement. We then have an in-depth conversation about the Iranian government’s response and what may come next.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
What happened to Mahsa Amini in Iran?
Negar Mortazavi [00:00:00] I think it was a watershed moment, but it was also a culmination of years and years of anger and resistance by women that we’re seeing this outpouring of anger. Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old small town Kurdish girl — her Kurdish name was actually Jina (or Zhina) Amini — from a small city called Saqqez in western Iran. She was visiting Tehran, the capital, with her family in September and as she gets off the metro with her brother, she is stopped by the morality police and detained because they deemed her dress or outfit not within the mandatory hijab limits of the state and they take her to the detention center. She ends up in a coma in the hospital soon after and then dies. Her family says she was subjected to violence when she was arrested, in the police van during the arrest. The state has put out this alternative narrative that there was no violence and that she died of a heart attack. Regardless, the fact is that she died while in the custody of the morality police and then we saw this eruption of anger in Kurdistan, where she is originally from. Her family was pressured for the funeral, the proceedings and for the state basically trying to prevent her funeral becoming a protest, which it eventually did in Kurdistan and then in Tehran, and then it spread to cities across the country. Now we see protests in every province across Iran with Iranians, women and girls and men shoulder to shoulder with them essentially in this feminist uprising, this women’s uprising, risking their lives in saying no to this brutality by the state.
How did Mahsa Amini’s death in morality police custody lead to mass feminist protests?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:06] So how is it, though, that the death of just one young woman has led to this national protest movement? How is this the spark that ignited a massive protest movement across the country as opposed to other deprivations that have been imposed upon Iranian women and other aspects of Iranian society for years? Why now? Why is this the spark?
Negar Mortazavi [00:04:34] So this anger that we’re seeing is a culmination of decades of discrimination against Iranian women and it’s not only the dress code. It starts with the dress code. It’s the most visible symbol that you see in the society on the street. It’s also very important for the state because this is how they impose their image, their control. But it goes into all aspects of the personal and professional lives of Iranian women, from family law to marriage to divorce, child custody, inheritance. Even traveling: Iranian women needs permission from her husband if she wants to travel outside the country. So, the discrimination has been going on for decades and the state has been imposing it with violence, as we see in the case of this morality police, it’s essentially a form of violent harassment against women in the public. And so, women have been slowly pushing and resisting when it comes to the dress code. If you look at the images of Iranian women in public in the 1980s and 90s and then compare it to the 2000s and then compare it to today, how this generation is dressing, it’s because they push the limits of the state slowly with their defiance, with the resistance, and have been subjected to brutality and violence. And then also the women’s movement has slowly, over the decades, fought for these rights, for the basic rights, for their dignity. And the death of Mahsa Amini was essentially a watershed moment where women are saying, enough is enough. You can’t kill us, essentially because of the way we dress. We even see some religious people, some hijabi women saying what was exactly wrong with Mahsa Amini, because we’ve seen images of her in detention. We know exactly how she was dressed when she was detained, and women see themselves in her. They’re saying, this is how I dress. Men see their own sisters in her and they say, this is how my sister goes out every day, are you going to kill her, too, next? So, I think it was a watershed moment, but it was also a culmination of years and years of anger and resistance by women that we’re seeing this outpouring of anger.
Who is Ebrahim Raisi?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:33] Ebrahim Raisi became president last year and he is very much from the more hardline tradition of Iranian politics, not a reformer, and it’s my understanding that since he came to office, the kinds of patrols by morality police and other kinds of enforcement of laws against the freedom of women have become stepped up. So, it seems, as you describe it, you have this rising feminist movement that is coinciding with this increased hard-line approach to morality and laws against women. Is that a fair assessment?
Negar Mortazavi [00:07:19] Sure. So, we have to remember that the discrimination and this state sanctioned violence against women has been a constant through moderates, reformists, and hard-line governments. Yes, there have been ups and downs: more enforcement of the morality police, less violence of the morality police, depending on who is in charge and with Raisi being an ultra-conservative who comes from the ultraconservative and hard-line factions of the Iranian political structure, there has been an uptick in enforcement of mandatory hijab and the violence of the morality police, and that’s exactly why you see the backlash. So just a few months before these protests, there was another woman, Sepideh Rashno, who was on a bus, and she gets into an argument with a woman who is a hijabi and is accusing her of not wearing the proper dress code. And they get into an argument and other women join in to support Sepideh Rashno and essentially kick the hijabi woman out of the bus. And that hijabi woman says, I’m going to contact the authorities, the IRGC, and I’ll show you. And then a few days later, we see Sepideh Rashno getting arrested and then later she appears on state TV in what seems like a forced confession, essentially confessing to her crime. And the other woman, the hijabi woman who got into an argument with her appears on TV as a hero and is praised. So that was the initial spark of anger, mostly on social media, but it created a national conversation on how even when women are resisting and slowly pushing the limits, there are reminders by the state that we’re watching you and we can punish you in the most severe way. And they made an example, essentially, of that woman, of Sepideh Rashno, but it backfired. It created an all-in conversation with a lot of anger and fury and then when the Mahsa Amini episode happened, I think that just became a turning point after another turning point and then we see this outpouring of anger. It’s also important to look at the state’s response. So, when Mahsa Amini dies of a coma in the hospital, immediately the state puts out the alternative narrative immediately to try to pressure the family instead of listening to the grievances, trying to find what went wrong, who was in charge, who made the mistake. And I think that adds to the anger, and people feel like, oh, it’s another episode where they want to defy their own responsibility, deny whatever happened, the violence, essentially the killing as the family is accusing the police and move on as usual. So that’s why you see this enough is enough moment.
Why are oil workers striking in Iran?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:59] So you described earlier that the protests initially began in the Kurdish area where Mahsa Amini was from but spread quickly throughout Iran to Tehran and elsewhere. And more recently, we are seeing reports that oil workers are going on strike. Presumably, these are all male oil workers. What’s the significance of the energy sector getting involved in this protest movement?
Negar Mortazavi [00:10:31] Well, they call this a feminist uprising or a women’s revolution, and women are at the forefront very central to this uprising, they’re leading a lot of the protests. Women and young girls, schoolgirls have also joined. We’re seeing very iconic symbolic images. You see also in intersectionality in these protests of different communities coming together or joining the protests with their own grievances, many of which overlap. There are underlying economic grievances, political grievances. There’s the political repression, essentially, people feel like they have no avenue to pursue political change. The elections are controversial. The reformists and moderate candidates, even the most centrist candidates in the previous presidential election, were all disqualified. And essentially people see Raisi as a shoo in candidate for the conservatives. They cleared the path, the field for him to have an easy win. The previous election before that, two years ago, the parliament election was similar. The hardliners took over in the Parliament in a controversial election by disqualifying their competitors, in the presidential election the same. So, it’s this disenfranchised population that sees no avenue for political change. Also, the economy is in very bad shape. There’s a lot of corruption in the political elite, in the economic sector. Economic sanctions have put a serious burden on the economy. COVID, adds to all of that. So, there’s this young population that feels no economic prospect, no avenue for political change and then you see all these other communities joining in. We saw teachers’ unions, we saw laborers, we saw university students. Now we see high schoolers, and then eventually the oil workers, which is very significant because the oil strikes in the 1979, the lead up to the 1979 revolution, was actually one of the main factors and one of the significant moments of the revolution were the strikes in the oil sector. So, this time around, everyone is watching these strikes of the oil sector. It’s significant, although the government is less reliant on oil than it was the previous regime in 1979 so it depends on how long these strikes are going to last and how much of a blow they’re going to have to the economy. But it is a very significant moment indeed.
Why is there a mass protest movement in Iran?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:48] So these protests are not centralized, but I’m still nonetheless interested in getting your analysis about to what extent these protests are against the specific hard-line policies of Ebrahim Raisi and the ultra conservatives versus perhaps a more broad-based protest against the entire Islamic Republic itself.
Negar Mortazavi [00:13:13] Well, we hear a lot of radical slogans, very loud and clear by protesters on this street. Obviously, these protests don’t really have one or two leaders on the ground. They’re very organic, very grassroots and a very spontaneous outpouring of anger, and also there is intersectionality of all these different communities with different grievances. So, you have the reformists and moderates also joining in in the conversation or the protests on the street, some who are protesting within the system, but also many who are protesting outside of the system just saying no to the entirety of the Islamic Republic. They’re chanting against senior leadership in the country, the president, the supreme leader, and essentially the message is that they want a change in the entirety of the regime, and they see this as a revolution, many inside the country and outside. But there are also rifts or cracks within the system. We saw a sitting member of parliament go on state television and criticize the morality police and this enforcement of the mandatory hijab. We saw Grand Ayatollah, who’s a critic of the government, but nevertheless, he’s a top religious leader in the country, criticize this morality police and this enforcement of the mandatory hijab and others, former government officials, also speaking up. So, there’s different layers of opposition that some fall within the system and some fall completely outside of it. And want a complete end or an overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
How is the Iranian government responding to these mass protests?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:40] What has been the reaction and response thus far to these protests by the government?
Negar Mortazavi [00:14:47] Well, initially, the alternative story as far as the death of Mahsa Amini was put out. They were pushing that she died of a heart attack, which actually some people criticize even more heavily. They were like, if you beat someone and they die is one thing, but if someone dies of fear in your detention, that’s actually in a way even scarier that you basically scared this woman to death. There was a popular figure on Instagram who was talking about this. Anyway, so that’s that was one side of it. Then the pressure on the family, on her Kurdish community, about the funeral, about the proceedings, even her body when it was delivered to the family, all of that became controversial and the state was putting constant pressure even on the family, asking them to not do media interviews to this day or pressuring them when they were speaking to the media or speaking up against that state narrative of how their daughter ended up in a hospital and died, and also the response to the protesters. There has been a lot of violence, brutal violence by security forces against protesters. Human rights organizations are documenting the violence from the images that are coming out and essentially a lot of citizen journalists just filming these images on the street and sending them out to the media, to these organizations for documentation. And then denying the fact that this morality police is a violent force, that it commits violence against women, and that women have time and again either witnessed this violence firsthand or recorded images, photos, and videos of this violence. There was also another instance before Sepidah Rashno and the forced confession. This video came out of a mother whose daughter was arrested by the morality police and she was trying to hold the policemen where her daughter was detained inside, saying, please don’t take my daughter, she is sick, and the van kept driving as this mother was trying to push in front of it. And it just became this very, very emotional video that people watch time and again online. It went viral on social media, and it also added to the anger. So, there’s been layers and layers of anger that the state just either denies the existence of this violence or tries to put out alternative stories of how things happen not only about Mahsa but also about some of these young protesters. There’s been a few young girls and men who have died in these protests or at the hands of the security forces and the state is trying to put out alternative sources saying one of them was pushed from a rooftop, the other one committed a suicide and then pressuring their family, arresting some of their extended family, bringing them on national state television to essentially repeat the state narrative of what happened to their loved ones.
Who is Ayatollah Khamenei?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:28] And what about Ayatollah Khamenei himself? Has he responded directly thus far to this protest movement?
Negar Mortazavi [00:17:36] Yes. So, he had a speech in which he blamed a lot of these protests, essentially, the state narrative is that they’re calling them disrupters or rioters. They’re accusing the protesters of destroying people’s lives, livelihoods and public and private property and blaming it on foreign powers, saying that Iran’s foes, Iran’s foreign foes, western countries are fomenting this unrest and that this is coming from the outside and they’re being either supported or financed or there’s some form of foreign intervention, which adds to the anger of the protesters. And it even seems like it makes them more determined to stay on the street, risk their lives and prove that, no, this is a grassroots underground movement and that we’re real people, we’re not disruptors, we’re mostly peaceful protesters, and we have legitimate grievances and demands. Let me just read from a report that was put out by Human Rights Watch, the human rights organization that says based on videos of protests and interviews with witnesses, they have documented numerous incidents of security forces unlawfully using excessive or lethal force against protesters. Security forces are using gunshots, assault rifles, handguns against protesters in largely peaceful and often crowded settings. And the report says altogether they have killed and injured hundreds, in some cases, even shooting at people who are running away so from behind.
What human rights violations are occurring in the Iranian protests?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:12] Well, that leads me to my next question. Over the years, the Iranian government has gotten perversely very good at suppressing dissent. There have been protest movements over the years, perhaps the largest one over the last decade or so is the Green Movement in 2009, which fizzled amid government repression. At this point, has the Iranian government, has the regime unleashed its sort of full repressive capacity? Are they still holding back a bit?
Negar Mortazavi [00:19:44] Well, from the reports of these human rights organizations and also from the images we’re seeing and some journalists who are operating on the ground — although it’s very limited for foreign journalists and then for local journalists, for Iranian journalists, I want to note that many have been arrested, including a female journalist called Nilufar Hamidi, who was the first person who went to the hospital and tweeted a photo of Amini’s parents, hugging each other outside her hospital room, which essentially signaled that she was not okay, she was in a coma and eventually died. This journalist was arrested a few days later and is still in detention, under a lot of pressure. Other journalists have been arrested, political figures have been arrested or have been put on notice by security forces, essentially asking them to not participate or to not speak up, tone it down online and that they’re watching them and threatening with arrest. On the street, also, as I said, we’re seeing brutal violence and human rights organizations are acknowledging that or reporting that but in 2019, what we saw was the complete unleashing of essentially an iron fist by the state that quickly crushed the protest in just a matter of a few days. There was a complete, total Internet shut down, very, very limited access to the global Internet was left inside the country and the brutality was just very quick and very severe. This time around, it seems like not all of those forces have been unleashed yet. It doesn’t mean that they will, but it just seems like it’s taken more time and it’s slower and one of the reasons may be, I mean, the state doesn’t speak to this, but one of the reasons may be the central role that women and girls are playing. Because when you have women at the forefront, when you have these young girls at the forefront, it’s just more difficult to suppress and to commit violence while you also want to go around and deny it later. So, we have seen a lot of brutal violence. I want to be clear, not that we’re not seeing, but it’s not to the extent and the level that we saw in 2019 or later found out from the images, the sort of immediate crackdown. But it just seems like that can also come, there can be more forces put on the ground and the unrest and the protests can be crushed even further.
How does Iran’s current protest movement compare to others like in 2009 or 2019?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:07] Well, that’s fascinating. So, you’re suggesting that it might be the fact that these are women and young girl led protests that are perhaps the reason thus far we have not seen that sort of iron fisted massive crackdown against protesters, though, of course, there has been lots of violence thus far. Just not to the extent we have seen in previous protest movements in Iran.
Negar Mortazavi [00:22:29] Well, in 2019, it was a little bit different compared to that movement. This is a more women led, essentially a woman uprising but in 2009, also, it took the state a few months. People stood on the street a few months until the protests and the entire movement was crushed by the state. So there has been different blueprints or different playbooks played by the state and it seems like the crackdown this time has been slower, but it’s gradually, we see an uptick in the violence by security forces. And we’ve seen in the past that the state has the willingness and the capacity to crush this form of unrest. But also, it doesn’t mean that the grievances go away. Even if people go back to their homes, the next time they come out is just an added layer of grievance to the previous ones that haven’t been addressed by the state.
Do the current Iranian protests pose a revolutionary threat to the Iranian government?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:21] So at least from the outside, it seems as if thus far the revolutionary government of Iran does not view these protests as particularly existential. Is there any tipping point you might foresee that would suggest to you that in fact, these protests could achieve some sort of like counterrevolutionary or pose a real big threat to the government in one way or another?
Negar Mortazavi [00:23:52] Well, the government does talk about this being a serious blow to the Islamic Republic and these being anti revolutionaries and disrupters and rioters, how much they actually believe as far as this being an existential threat, it’s not clear. But from the level of brutality and the violence of the security forces, obviously it shows that it’s a legitimacy crisis. They’re dealing with a very serious and deep crisis of legitimacy with a big portion of the population, just considering them completely illegitimate and wanting a total overthrow of the entire system, giving up in any form of reform within the system. Now, how much of the population that is? It’s not clear. Obviously, not everyone is on the street. The state claims to have the support of the majority. The protesters believe that they are the majority. So, it’s difficult to gauge that. One of the central slogans is woman, life, freedom. It’s just such a progressive and forward-looking slogan and it’s revolutionary in itself but does that necessarily mean an end of the regime? It’s not clear. It’s difficult to survey all protesters on the street and all these different sectors that have joined in. Some of them operate within the system as far as the unions, the organizations, some of them are completely opposed to the system. And we also hear very radical slogans when there’s slogans against senior leadership, the top leaders of the country, the entirety of the system, death to the dictator, death to the Islamic Republic. That’s very clear as far as the demands. So, it’s one thing what the protesters want. It’s one thing what the state perceives and also is capable of. I don’t want to speculate one way or the other where this is going so far, it’s been very surprising, the courage and the bravery that we’re seeing of these women, young girls and also men, women, and allies and as they like to call them. But it depends how much they can sustain this. How many other communities and sections of the society are going to join, are willing to risk a lot to sustain this? So far it doesn’t seem like it’s ending, but it also corresponds with how much violence and brutality the state is willing to use against them.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:07] Lastly, I know you said you don’t want to predict where this will end up, but are there any events or inflection points you’ll be looking towards in the coming weeks or months that will suggest to you how this crisis will unfold?
Negar Mortazavi [00:26:22] One thing is how long the protests are going to continue on the streets, how disruptive they’re going to be to the everyday dealings of the state, how many other sections are going to join? So that oil workers, that’s very essential. How long that’s going to sustain? Is the state going to crack down on that essentially end it or is the disruption going to continue? That’s going to be a very serious blow if the oil strikes continue. The schoolchildren, it seems like the high schoolers and these teenagers essentially keep joining the movement and they’re getting more bold and brave and courageous, not only chanting theoretical slogans, taking off their scarves, confronting school officials. Even in some schools, they confronted government officials, including the president. But they’re also filming this, recording these images of themselves, and then posting it on social media, which also shows a lot of courage and bravery. And we’re hearing stories of arrests of security forces going into schools and arresting some of these schoolchildren. So how long the population or the protesters are going to sustain this is a determining factor and how many other communities are going to join. If this continues for weeks and months, it will be clearer, and we’ll have more info in the upcoming weeks or months. But also in 2009, the protesters continued for about a year, for ten, 11 months. There were protests after protests. First it was days then it was every week, at every event but essentially the state crushed it. That was a different format and a different time, but it was sustained for up to a year, so it’s hard to say. But also, we were seeing some historians saying, you know, before the 1979 revolution, also a lot of people were predicting that that nothing has happened, everything is okay and then eventually they saw a revolution coming. So, one way or the other, we have to wait and see how this is going to continue.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:26] Negar, thank you so much for your time.
Negar Mortazavi [00:28:29] Thanks for having me.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:38] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.