Are hijab protests ‘the beginning of the end’ for Iran’s regime?

The uprising over the death of Mahsa Amini is like no other, but whether it leads to revolution remains to be seen

The Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, was holding court to a small group of journalists at the Millennium Hilton in New York on his first visit to the United States since his election in June 2021. At home, protests over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, were entering their sixth day.

At the start of the meeting, a 10-minute film was shown, part patriotic travel brochure and part paen to how the Iranian people “live peacefully together in a new model of democracy”. Given the events in Iran, it seemed like the kind of absurd propaganda only a severely self-deluded regime would screen.

Raisi’s minders were reluctant to take questions about the protests, but when he agreed, he became fiercely animated about western double standards and spoke so loudly that the words of the mild-mannered translator became hard to discern through the headphones. No final determination had been made into Amini’s death, but preliminary evidence showed a stroke or heart failure was the cause, he said. He cited statistics that 81 women had been killed in the UK in a six-month period. “How many times each day in the US are men and women killed every day at the hands of law enforcement personnel?”

Ebrahim Raisi speaking during the press conference in New York on 22 September.
Ebrahim Raisi speaking during the press conference in New York on 22 September. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Two weeks on and it is clear that Raisi had little idea of the forces that were being unleashed inside his country. It is still not clear whether the protests are over, despite mass arrests and scores of deaths. Nor is it clear if the older Iranian leadership believe they are facing an existential threat that requires them to change tack.

Nazanin Boniadi, a British-Iranian actor and Amnesty International ambassador, takes the view that something new has emerged on the streets of Iran.

“Never in my 14 years working on human rights advocacy have I witnessed such disillusionment with, and opposition to, the Islamic Republic regime,” she said. “While Iran has become accustomed to mass protests every decade, neither the student protests of 1999 nor the green movement of 2009, or even more recently the November 2019 protests, compare in fervour or magnitude to the current protests.”

Protest blocking a road in Tehran on 1 October.
Protest blocking a road in Tehran on 1 October. Photograph: EPA

Boniadi cited as evidence the way in which protesters have fought back against security forces, sometimes by toppling patrol vans, and the tearing down of billboards of the Islamic Republic founder’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

“The most unprecedented part is that the protests have been female-led,” she said. “The movement’s slogan ‘Women, life and freedom’ is antithetical to the Islamic Republic, which has built itself on being anti-woman, pro-martyrdom and repressive. This uprising is not just about draconian dress codes. The compulsory hijab has simply become a symbol of a wider Iranian women’s struggle.”

Kasra Aarabi, Iran analyst at the Institute for Global Change, described the mood in the country as revolutionary. “The people that speak to me believe they are in the middle of a revolution and will not back down. One way or another this is the beginning of the end of the regime. This is not about reform. This is about regime change.”

Others are more cautious. Dr Sanam Vakil, from the Chatham House thinktank, said the protests had revealed a huge divide in attitudes to the theocratic system.

“The sheer force, velocity and audacity of this spontaneous movement have left the regime close to losing control,” she said. “But they have a playbook to quash protests that has worked in the past and they are now using that playbook.”

Vakil senses Iran is still nervous about the optics of being seen to beat up women and children. The ubiquitous mobile phone and social media act as constraints on the security forces.

Global solidarity

The engagement of the vast diaspora, celebrities and sports stars – inside and outside Iran – also give the protests a different global character. Donya Dadrasan, an Iranian pop star based in Australia with 2.5m Instagram followers, has poured out content about the morality police. Like many others, she has posted footage on TikTok and Instagram of herself cutting her own hair in solidarity with women in Iran.

On 4 October, a Swedish member of the European parliament, Iraqi-born Abir Al-Sahlani, pulled out a pair of scissors and cut her hair during a speech. The former political prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe did something similar in the UK, followed by a group of French actors including Isabelle Huppert, Marion Cotillard, Juliette Binoche and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

But the leaders of the Iranian revolution, many in their 80s, inhabit a different world in which the compulsory hijab is not about the subjugation but the liberation of women, leading to a purer Islamic society. Indeed Raisi, a former head of the judiciary, was handpicked by the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, according to Aarabi, to help take Iran through Khamenei’s five mystical stages: Islamic revolution, Islamic regime, Islamic government, Islamic society and, finally, Islamic civilisation.

Soon after taking the reins of power in August, Raisi decided to review the way in which the laws on the use of the hijab in public places, enshrined by article 638 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, was being enforced.

Support for the hijab has been waning for years, with a report in 2018 showing nearly 70% of women either did not believe in the hijab or were among “the improperly veiled”.

But with conservatives now dominating every tier of Iranian politics, Raisi decided to confront the erosion of support by implementing a plan called “strategies to spread the culture of chastity” – in essence a repeat of a policy first adopted in 2005.

The essence of the 115-page plan, as published by Iranwire, was as follows:

  • The introduction of surveillance cameras to monitor and fine unveiled women or refer them for “counselling”.

  • Seminary students being placed in residential buildings to monitor how occupants dress in communal areas.

  • Hospital staff being required to provide “appropriate garments” to female patients on their way to surgery.

  • Fines for any individual who designs, imports, buys or sells “vulgar dresses”.

  • New disciplinary policies for female actors who work with the state broadcaster.

  • Mandatory prison sentence for any Iranian who questions or posts content online against the mandatory hijab law.

By late August, women judged not to be in compliance were barred from entering government offices or banks, or from using public transport.

The notorious guidance patrols, or morality police, also became increasingly active and violent, especially on buses and metros, even if they steered clear of metropolitan northern Tehran. New patrol cars were bought. Videos quickly emerged on social media showing officers detaining women, forcing them into vans and taking them away for hour-long “re-education sessions”.

Media crackdowns

It was into this context that Mahsa Amini, the oldest of four children, set off with her family to Tehran for a five-day shopping and sightseeing trip, staying at her aunt’s house. A bright young woman from a loving family, Amini had just been accepted to study at Urmia University, the biggest university campus in north-west Iran.

What happened after she emerged from a metro station and entered Talaqani Park, where she was walking with three female and two male relatives, including her brother Ashkan, is a matter of dispute.

She was approached by at least five members of the morality police who said she was in breach of the Islamic dress code. Two of the women were given warnings but Amini, despite pleas from her aunt that she was from out of town, was directed into a van to be taken to a police station for a correction lesson.

A protester in Berlin holds a painted portrait of Mahsa Amini during a rally in solidarity with Iranian protests.
A protester in Berlin holds a painted portrait of Mahsa Amini during a rally in solidarity with Iranian protests. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Her cousin Erfan Mortezaei claimed she was beaten in the van. An edited video recording from the station released by the police shows Amini standing alone, collapsing on to a chair and then the floor. She had had a stroke or a heart attack, but it took 30 minutes for ambulance staff to reach her and an hour and a half before she arrived at Kasra hospital.

Amini was in effect brain dead. Temporarily resuscitated, she was put on a life support machine but three days later, on 16 September, she was formally pronounced dead. She was a few days short of her 23rd birthday.

It took three weeks for Iranian officials to produce a definitive official account of what happened, even though the hospital’s X-rays and postmortem reports have long been widely available. The official narrative was that she had not died because of a blow to a head, but from longstanding heart rhythm disorders.

The family have said Amini had a minor neurological condition, possibly a brain tumour when she was eight, but said it was under control through the use of levothyroxine, and that only recently a doctor had given her the all-clear.

Her condition does not rule out a brain seizure – possibly due to the deep distress of her arrest – but it aids the police case that she was not physical assaulted. The morality police have told the family they weren’t wearing body cameras, which would have proven what did or did not happen in the van.

The level of trust between Iranian officials and the family’s lawyers is close to zero. Saleh Nikhbakht said in an interview with Rudaw, a leading Kurdish news outlet: “All the claims that the [Iranian] establishment make about Zhina [her Kurdish name], such as her having a chronic illness and so on, are lies and not to be taken seriously.

“The killing of prisoners in these places is not something new or limited to Zhina. If she was killed in Kurdistan, they could have twisted the facts, but this time they could not.”

Amini’s father, still distraught, has been reluctant to cooperate with the official parliamentary inquiry proposing a list of independent neurologists to examine her death.

The fact that security forces arrested those journalists most associated with exposing her death hardly instills confidence that the authorities are engaged in a dispassionate search for the truth.

Take Niloofar Hamedi, from the reformist Sharg newspaper. She photographed Amini’s parents comforting each other in the hospital corridor on the day she died, and took the photographs that spread around the world of Amini on her deathbed.

A woman holds a sign during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
A woman holds a sign during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Hamedi was later picked up at her home and put into solitary confinement. Her Twitter account has been suspended. Her husband said she had called him from jail on the 13th day of her imprisonment. He tweeted that she is reportedly doing well in a cell with eight others, but that no charges have been laid against her.

Journalists in Iran walk a tightrope and can be sacked or even imprisoned for critical tweets. Catch-all charges, such as “disturbing public opinion” and “spreading anti-establishment propaganda”, remind reporters of the limit to free expression.

But Hamedi’s card may have been marked because she had previously given a witness account, picked up in the international press, of how the morality police had accosted a couple walking with a child in a park on 28 April, demanding to know their ID numbers so they could check whether the woman had any previous breaches of the moral code. After an altercation, the police pepper-sprayed the woman, Maria Arefi, and shot her husband, the former Iranian boxing champion Reza Moradkhani, four times. He was forced to have a 12-hour emergency operation.

The couple reported that, after the incident, the police officer confiscated mobile phones from all nearby witnesses, deleting photos and videos of the shooting and even factory-resetting several phones to delete their data. Only one photo and a short clip taken after the incident have been recovered.

Elaheh Mohammadi – a reporter for the pro-reform Hammihan newspaper and the author of a blistering account of Amini’s agonising family funeral filed from the family’s home town of Saqez – was summoned to face the judicial authorities. She had reported not just on the pain of the family at the burial, but the family accusation that a police cover-up was under way. Mohammadi had also fallen foul of the authorities before when she was banned from writing for a year from April 2020 after exposing conditions inside Qarchak prison during the coronavirus outbreak.

Mass arrests

As the repression and flash demos roll on, spreading from elite universities to school playgrounds, mass arrests have started. In recent days it has seemed like Iran is living in an upside down world, where security guards patrol campuses and students occupy prison cells.

The authorities inevitably focus on violence against the police, and point to large, state-orchestrated marches in support of the regime.

But at the same time, flat-footed official denials of brutality against women proliferate.

The death of Nika Shakrami, who would have turned 17 at the weekend, has become a focus for online activists who say she was killed during the first days of protests in late September. After she went missing, her family searched for her for several days before she was confirmed dead.

Officials told state media her death was not linked to protests and that she had fallen from a roof. Her mother says she did not kill herself and that relatives who appeared to support the regime line had been forced into a staged TV confession.

Nika Shakrami.
Nika Shakrami. Photograph: Twitter

The mother of 16-year-old Sarina Ismailzadeh says her daughter was killed by a police baton; officials say she killed herself.

Some protesters told the Guardian they had gone too far to turn back now. “We will not tolerate their restrictions and not adhere to the regime’s strict dress code,” one said. “It is our lives and we have the right of choice. I have seen dead bodies on the streets and roads and we will not let their blood be wasted.”

Yet as the arrests grow, their tactics may need a re-think. Numbers on the streets have not grown and the prospect of an enforced retreat looms in the faint hope the regime will voluntarily revise the role of the morality police.

There has been some soul-searching in the political elite about the deeper causes of the protests, and whether the often brutal methods of morality police can truly change the minds of the younger generation, many of whom are losing their religion. Faith, after all, is a belief of the heart.

Some in the elite recognise Raisi may have won in 2021, but it was with the lowest turnout in a presidential election in the history of the republic. He secured only 25% support from those eligible to vote. Tehran collectively turned its back on the charade of Iranian politics. To impose a cultural crackdown with this mandate was seeking trouble.

Gholamali Haddad-Adel, a personal adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei and related through marriage, told a Tehran University seminar: “Unfortunately, our society is rapidly moving towards polarisation between believers in God and non-believers.”

Although he called for a debate about the hijab in universities, he said: “The problem that the west has designed for our country is to destroy the family, because the family is the bed of religiosity, and if the family is shaken, religiosity will definitely be burned from the roots.”

Naser Makarem Shirazi, one of the oldest and most senior clerics in Iran, attributed the riots to three factors: “Foreign enemies, an abandoned virtual space and people’s economic and livelihood problems.”

Others have blamed western jealousy of Iran’s scientific advances. Resorting to nationalism, as opposed to Islamism, they see a western conspiracy to break up Iran.

But the regime is clearly concerned about the frequency of the protests and regards them as debilitating. Hardliners are urging them to be brought to an end with an unprecedented, if largely unseen, crackdown in which protesters will be tried and charged with hirabh, or enmity towards God, which is punishable by death. This may yet get very dark.

Additional reporting by Haroon Janjua

• This article was amended on 10 October 2022 to correct the spelling of Mahsa Amini’s first name.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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