The Protests in Iran Have Shaken the Islamic Republic to Its Core

Protesters chant slogans over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran, on Sept. 21, 2022. [AP]

To the officers of Iran’s morality police who arrested the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on Sept. 13, it must have seemed like business as usual. Her brother’s appeals that they were visitors on unfamiliar ground in Tehran went unheeded as she was forced away, just one among scores arrested that day for showing a few strands of hair outside her headscarf. But what followed is shaking the theocratic state to its core.

Hours after her detention, Amini was admitted to hospital “without any vital signs and brain-dead,” officials there reported. She was pronounced dead on Sept. 16. In the days between, the Iranian public saw a photo of a young girl in the prime of life attached to tubes—blood stains visible on her ear, which a doctor viewing the images called a possible sign of severe head trauma.

Almost immediately protests broke out at Amini’s funeral in her hometown of Saqqez in Iran’s Kurdistan’s Province, only to spread like wildfire across the country. Unprecedented in size and speed, they were also marked by the audacity of the protestors—led in almost every instance by women. They held aloft pictures of Amini, waved their veils in the air, burned them in bonfires, and shouted “Zhin, Zhiyan, Azadi” (woman, life, freedom).

On social media, her name became an Iranian version of #MeToo — a prompt for ordinary people to post experiences of loss and oppression at the hands of the Islamic Republic, gathered under #MahsaAmini. “For my cousin, whom you imprisoned in 1979 at the age of 16, and in 1988, you informed his mother of his execution,” reads one. In assorted forms and language, the hashtag surpassed 80 million mentions on Twitter—many with the slogan “Mahsa you are not dead, your name has become a symbol.” Others alluded to her brother’s pleas to let her go as they were strangers in Tehran: “You’re no longer a stranger, the whole country knows you now.”

Each day image after image emerged of Iranian women facing off with police and security forces with their head free of any covering. Most had only known hijab—the covering of hair and body prescribed by faith—as the law of the land, having been born decades after the 1979 revolution that made Iran a theocracy while rolling back women’s rights. On Friday, one week after Amini’s death, parts of Tehran had become protest zones. Iranians gathered under a freeway overpass singing, “This is the year of blood, seyed Ali will be overthrown,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The Islamic Republic, no stranger to public discontent and protests, was nonetheless shocked and caught off guard. The security apparatus began clamping down almost immediately. Short, grainy clips filmed o