• Ideas
  • Iran

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

8 minute read
Kay Armin Serjoie is an Iranian journalist who has reported from Tehran for TIME, AFP and the Washington Post. He is now based in Europe.

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 on cellphones began popping up on Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp showing the police, in many instances accompanied and abetted by paramilitary Basij forces, attacking and beating men and women as they fled their onslaught—with the sound of gunshots clearly audible.

As the protests continued, more and more names and pictures of young men and women claimed to have been killed appeared on social media, including one on Iranian actress Parasto Salehi’s Instagram account. Official tallies rose steadily, from more than a dozen to the 26 a state TV anchor cited at one point on Thursday to 35 a few hours later.

In more than four decades in power, the Iranian state has stamped out many protests, starting with those led by rivals jousting for control of the country following the 1979 flight of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in 2009 to protest perceived election fraud in what came to be known as the “Green Revolution,” only to be broken up by regime forces and mass arrests. More recently, in November 2019, hikes in gas prices brought sudden public outbursts across the country that the government answered with live fire. In eight days the civilian death toll passed 300, including at least 23 children, according to Amnesty International. To obscure its actions and prevent protestors from communicating, the government took another extreme step: shutting down the internet.

Ominously, a similar approach seems to be underway now. Mobile data networks have been shut off and most social media filtered. And though Iranians years ago learned how to circumvent internet restrictions—often by using VPNs—the looming possibility of a total blackout has many worried, especially after scores of activists, students, and political figures were preemptively arrested on orders by the head of the Judiciary, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i.

The apprehension is also fed by recordings circulating on messaging services. In one unverified audio file shared on Telegram, a senior Basij commander in the northern city of Rasht can be heard beseeching members of his division to show up for anti-protest operations, repeatedly saying, “thank God our hands have now been left open.” The language is generally understood to mean the paramilitaries can now use live ammunition against protestors.

In another recording circulating an intelligence officer calls a young protestor in the central city of Kerman, demanding that he stop “instigating crowds” by making speeches on the street or he would face consequences. To the officer’s apparent surprise, he was told “To do your worst.”

The protests have continued despite the risks. Clips and images circulating online show riot police and plainclothes agents chased, and in some instances captured and beaten up by demonstrators. With at least 80 cities reported to be actively protesting—and the number growing every day—security forces appear stretched thin, and reports of disagreement among them began circulating.

At the same time, more and more Iranian celebrities, actors, and athletes have come out publicly in support of the protestors, demanding the state back down and listen to them—from the former football player Ali Karimi, who on Twitter and Instagram lambasted the authorities and demanded a stop to brutality, to actresses such as Katayoun Riahi, who publicly removed her veil in solidarity with Iranian women. Even celebrities who had been seen as loyal and close to the establishment such as Shahab Hosseini have joined the ranks of those demanding an end to the violent clampdown.

During the first week of protest, international diplomacy may have acted as a restraint on security forces. President Ebrahim Raisi had travelled to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in part over talks to restart the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But with Raisi now returned and no deal in hand, activists warn that a repeat of November 2019 might be inevitable.

The managing director of Keyhan, the newspaper closely linked to the Supreme Leader, warned earlier this week that security forces would soon retake the streets. The Revolutionary Guards Corps issued a statement Thursday promising the defeat of the “enemy’s conspiracy.” The week brought reports of increased violence and the use of more deadly equipment by security forces and increasing fatalities, especially in the western Kurdistan region from which Amini hailed. There are already signs that security forces are converging on Tehran, with schools, universities, cinemas, theaters, and even some governmental offices all being closed in the coming days, in an all-out effort to stamp out the protests in the capital. Counter-demonstrators organized by the government called for protestors to be executed.

Both sides understand the issue reaches well beyond hijab.

“The death of Mahsa Amini was the spark in the powder keg of near universal discontent among Iranians,” says a political analyst in Tehran who wished not to be named due to safety concerns.

“Whether it be political and personal freedoms, economic hardships, or social limitations, many Iranians no longer have any hope for the future in the Islamic Republic… and the state no longer has the economic means to solve or delay its problems by throwing money at it,” the analyst adds.

“The protests these days are in the name of humanity, as opposed to the revolution of 1979 that was in the name of God,” tweeted Mohammadreza Javadi Yeganeh, a professor of sociology at the University of Tehran.

The 2022 demonstrations are “a social revolution,” Yeganeh added. “The protestors, especially women want to live based on their own understanding, inattentive of what religion says.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.