A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic’s morality police, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on Sept. 20, 2022.
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Roughly one year ago, the death of a young Kurdish Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini in police custody lit the fuse that would set off months of protests that rocked Iran and its hardline government, creating the greatest challenge to its rule in decades.
Amini, just 22 years old, was arrested for allegedly improperly wearing her hijab, the headscarf women are required to wear under Iran’s highly conservative Islamic Republic. She died after allegedly suffering multiple blows to the head. Iranian authorities claimed no wrongdoing and said Amini died of a heart attack; but her family, and masses of Iranians, accused the government of a cover-up.
The protests spread across the country and evolved from being focused on women’s rights to demanding the downfall of the entire Iranian regime. They led to severe crackdowns and frequent internet blackouts by Iranian authorities, as well as thousands of arrests and several executions.
But what many people hoped would become a full-on popular revolution failed to shatter the regime’s hold on power; instead, the repression intensified. Still, resistance continues in varying forms, many Iranians say.
“One year on, Iranian protesters continue to show the world that they have and continue to risk life and limb by coming out against the Islamic Republic,” Behnam ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told CNBC.
“Iran’s violent suppression of protestors was merged with the regime’s weaponization of cyberspace and the judiciary,” he said, “all of which were mobilized in a failed bid to demoralize Iranians.”
CNBC has contacted the Iranian foreign ministry for comment and is awaiting a reply.
People gather in protest against the death of Mahsa Amini along the streets on September 19, 2022 in Tehran, Iran. Anti-government uprisings are to remain a sticking point and increase in frequency in Iran’s political landscape as dissatisfaction with other factors like the country’s economic conditions surface, according to analysts.
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Indeed, arrests, surveillance, and executions have reportedly picked up in the months since the protests — dubbed by many Iranians as the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement – began.
Iranian authorities have ramped up pressure on peaceful dissidents ahead of the anniversary of Amini’s death, Human Rights Watch wrote in a mid-August report. That month, the independent women’s rights group Bidarzani reported raids on several homes by Iranian security forces that resulted in a dozen arrests of women’s rights activists and lawyers, it said.
An Iranian court charged the lawyer for Amini’s family, Saleh Nikbakht, with “propaganda against the state” for his work. He was released on bail pending a court hearing. Family members and lawyers of dissidents who were executed have also been arrested.
“Iranian authorities are using their go-to playbook of putting maximum pressure on peaceful dissidents ahead of the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death,” Tara Sepehri Far, a senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the organization’s report. “The arbitrary arrests of a dozen activists are aimed at suppressing popular discontent with ongoing impunity and rights violations.”
‘Letting our hair blow in the wind’
Despite the heavy handed measures of the state, women in many parts of Iran are refusing to wear the hijab. Photos and videos from cafes and shopping malls in Tehran show women out and about, hair uncovered.
“You can tell the big change is women aren’t backing down, and we are letting our hair blow in the wind,” one Iranian visiting her family in Tehran told CNBC. She spoke anonymously out of concern for her safety.
Women defying the hijab requirement still face significant risks. One recent instance reportedly involved a male taxi driver beating a female passenger for not covering her hair. Other consequences include arrest, fines, or serious physical attacks.
Businesses are also ordered by the government to turn away female customers that aren’t covering their hair, or risk facing closure; yet some businesses choose to shirk those orders as an act of solidarity with the women.
“Because a revolution hasn’t been set in motion doesn’t mean that the conditions on the ground and society haven’t somewhat changed and shifted,” Sanam Vakil, director of the MENA program at Chatham House, said during a recent podcast on the Iranian protests hosted by the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“What I really see happening inside Iran is, despite significant repression, regular crackdowns, surveillance and pressure on Iranian individuals and society writ large … we are seeing a regular pattern of protests that I think are important and show resistance.” Vakil also noted protest action beyond the anti-hijab movement, including angry demonstrations over water shortages, high inflation and economic pressure.
“Despite the state’s ability to continue to be repressive, people are at the same time, in different ways, fighting back,” she said.
A lack of organization
Iranian authorities are vocally vilifying the Mahsa Amini protests, revealing likely concern over potential unrest as the anniversary of her death approaches.
“As we are getting closer to the anniversary of the 2022 riots, rereading and identifying the nature of last year’s events is a necessity … The plotters of this war were the enemies and opponents of the Islamic Revolution, the rule of guardianship,” Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ political bureau, wrote in a state media outlet.
People hold up images and placards during a demonstration in honor of Jina Mahsa Amini and the other protesters killed at The Place Joachim du Bellay in Paris, on November 13, 2022.
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Meanwhile, “you now regularly see people on the streets of Tehran and other cities not just without Hijab but in tank tops,” Iranian historian and analyst Arash Azizi said. “But this is far from a consolidated achievement.”
Iran’s government has in fact recently imposed harsher hijab rules. “Its moral security police are back with their notorious vans patrolling streets; the very vans that arrested Mahsa,” Azizi said. “The regime has shown no sign of giving concessions.”
And despite having previously gathered thousands of people on the streets, “without political organization and leadership, the protests are very unlikely to lead to political change,” he said. “Iranians continue to sorely lack an organized alternative to the regime.”
But, Azizi noted, “even the regime’s own strategists admit that none of the fundamental problems that have led to constant protest since 2017 have been solved.”
“The regime’s economy continues to be in total tatters, its oppressive apparatus continues to dominate Iranian lives,” he said. “Resistance therefore continues.”