A year after the historic protest movement led by Iranian women which followed the death of the young Mahsa Amini, the Iranian authorities organized a fierce repression against the protesters to instill fear in this popular movement. But opposition persists, clandestinely, on social networks or abroad.
“Woman, life, freedom”: a year after the death in detention in Tehran of Mahsa Amini, 21, arrested by the moral police for wearing her veil incorrectly, this slogan has become the symbol of the massive and historic protest movement on the one hand, the Iranian population against the mullahs’ regime and its rules considered suffocating.
But after months of bloodily repressed demonstrations, hundreds of deaths, more than a thousand arrests and harassment of protesters by the authorities, the government managed to bring a semblance of calm back to the streets.
The anger and despair of Iranians continue to be expressed against moral dictates, conservative domination in the political sector and economic stagnation. On the front lines: women, young people, wealthy residents of big cities and some celebrities. They express themselves more or less anonymously on social networks or more freely from abroad and seem to be waiting for only one thing: for the streets to ignite again to perhaps, one day, see the Islamic Republic s ‘collapse.
Protests across the country
According to the authorities, the young woman died on September 16, four days after her arrest while she was visiting Tehran and preparing to enter a university in northwestern Iran. During the check, the moral police officers explained to Mahsa Amini’s family that they were going to take the young girl to give her “instructions” in “one of the police headquarters” in the company of other people, and that she will be released “within a few hours”.
Three days later, the police announced the young woman’s death. They say she “suddenly fainted while with other people in a meeting room” and died shortly after in a forensic institute. State television soon broadcast video extracts supposed to corroborate the police version and where we see a woman’s back collapsing in a room under the eyes of several witnesses.
This announcement quickly caused a significant wave of anger in the country, whether in Mahsa Amini’s native Kurdistan (her first name was Jina, a Kurdish name refused by the Iranian civil registry), regularly repressed by the central power, in the capital Tehran or in Isfahan, the third city in the country. Not to mention more sporadic movements in smaller urban centers.
In the processions, many women took off their hijab in protest against the obligation to wear it, in force since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Thousands of people march on certain days, raise anti-regime slogans and confront the police with stone throwing.
Fierce repression and inflexible power
The repression is instantaneous and hundreds of demonstrators are arrested, assaulted, tortured and sometimes executed throughout the country, when they have not fallen under the bullets of the police fired on the processions. A year later, the toll is heavy: at the beginning of June, 173 people had already been executed in Iran since the start of the year according to Amnesty International, almost three times more than the same period in 2022.
In everyday life, the noose has tightened, the non-wearing of the veil is much more controlled: it is on the way to becoming an offense, and therefore punishable by a prison sentence, whereas it was punished until now with a simple infraction.
“Today, a single woman who lets her veil fall on her shoulders or who wears it incorrectly will not necessarily be controlled, but if there are several of them and it seems demanded, it will be almost systematic,” notes Amelie Chelly, specialist sociologist of Iran and political Islam and associated researcher at CNRS and EHESS.
At the same time, public structures such as hospitals and libraries have received directives prohibiting them from welcoming women who do not wear veils. Thousands of private establishments, mainly shops, cafes and restaurants welcoming unveiled women, have been targeted by administrative closures.
The real-false dissolution of the moral police
At the beginning of December 2022, the Iranian government seemed to make a gesture in favor of the streets. The public prosecutor announced the dissolution of the morality police, which had arrested Mahsa Amini. Created in 2005 by former conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, these brigades are responsible for thousands of checks and arrests, and are renowned for their zeal.
“It especially agitated Westerners: in Iran, most people knew that either it was a lie, or it wouldn’t change much,” summarizes Amelie Chelly.
“It was never confirmed by the Iranian state. For several months, we no longer saw cars and motorcycles with the logo of the moral police,” relates Irène Ansari, Franco-Iranian, opponent of the regime and coordinator of the Iranian Women’s League for Democracy.
In July, a police force with the same prerogatives as the moral police returned to Iranian streets, taking over the controls and arrests that had been delegated to other population surveillance bodies, but displaying a different logo.
“The authorities said they planned to hire thousands of people for this service,” explains Irene Ansari.
The Internet’s threatened refuge
From the start, the movement was also deployed on social networks, despite the internet cuts decided by the regime. Images of the protests circulated, as did videos of women burning their veils or cutting their hair.
The Internet has today become the main means of expression for protesters: videos circulate regularly, notably showing women walking in the street from behind, without veils, sometimes with their shoulders and legs uncovered, often after dark. The platforms have also seen strong messages or gestures flourish from celebrities, who were regularly arrested when they were not exiled.
“At one point, there was a movement of suicide announcements posted online,” recalls Amelie Chelly, “it has calmed down a little today, but it was a way of showing both the strong determination and despair of part of the population”.
But repression has also developed its digital counterpart. “The cybersurveillance budget has been multiplied with more and more technological tools. It’s been almost a year since we stopped talking directly about the movement on the networks in Iran, out of fear,” explains the researcher.
She also details the pressure received by the younger opponents: “What the authorities did, during the movement, was that they took photos of the demonstrators, without saying anything, and then when these people spoke ( in a way considered subversive) on the networks, their family receives visits from people who tell them: ‘be careful, it would be better if your son or your daughter calmed down, problems could happen to him or her’.
So Iranians continue to exchange online, but on private groups or servers, hoping that the police do not have access. This is where, for example, many calls to demonstrate throughout the country on September 16 are circulating, but which resulted in many organizers being arrested, particularly at the end of July and beginning of August.
A high-risk birthday for opponents
It is possible that demonstrators will take to the streets more or less spontaneously, in Tehran or elsewhere. But in this case, the repression could be harsh. Symbol of the heavy climate that reigns in the country, journalists who covered the Mahsa Amini affair have been arrested several times and one of them risks the death penalty. The young woman’s uncle was also arrested on September 5. He is being held in an unknown location.
In this context, Irene Ansari finds it difficult to see the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death coinciding with the second wind of the mobilization: “I don’t think there will be massive demonstrations, but in Iranian Kurdistan, the pro-Kurdish parties called for a general strike. It is a region where the Iranian army is present (to fight armed independence groups), so they did not call for a demonstration because they know that there would be thousands of dead.”
This protest movement is the latest episode in a series of protest outbursts, but it testifies to a deeply rooted popular anger, linked not only to the weight of moral rules, but also to the absence of political freedoms and the poor situation. economic since the return of sanctions which followed the withdrawal of Washington then Tehran from the Iranian nuclear agreement.
For Amelie Chelly, “the particularity of this movement is that it is long-term, as if we had reached a point of no return. (…) The Iranians have a courage that we do not suspect and some tell themselves that they have nothing more to lose and are not afraid of losing their lives.
On the other hand, the regime does not seem open to concessions. This refusal to give in to the streets is characteristic of the government of Ebrahim Raïssi, elected president in August 2021 in favor of a hard line within an already very conservative theocracy.
“In Iran, we always serve two terms because we really like the long term,” recalls Amelie Chelly. It is therefore unlikely to observe signs of loosening of Iranian power before 2029, the date of the end of the president’s potential second term.
Irene Ansari, however, warns against hopes for the evolution of a regime which would come to grant more freedoms to Iranians: Iranian leaders “often quote Gorbachev (the last Soviet leader), saying that he tried to reform and that’s when it lost control and the USSR collapsed. This regime is prepared to kill thousands of people to ensure that nothing changes.”
Source: BFM TV