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Iran has begun handing down death sentences to demonstrators. Experts detail protests, vice police, the role of the US, and threats to the regime


Rioters in Iran have attacked police officers, thrown stones at security forces and blocked the streets, and Vice-President Rezaei has said that "enemies" are seeking to eliminate the republic's current political regime. A court in Iran recently handed down the first provisional death sentence to a demonstrator in Tehran province.

Protests in Iran have been occurring for more than a month and a half, with new casualties and outbreaks of dissent happening almost every week. The incident with 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died after she was accused of improperly wearing a headscarf and was brutally beaten by the Iranian vice squad, sparked the protests.

Another symbol of the protests was 16-year-old Nika Shakarami after a video of her burning her hijab quickly went viral online. The girl has since disappeared and her body was not recovered from the morgue until 10 days later.

Iranians have expressed dissent outside the country as well: Iranian Elnaz Rekabi performed without a hijab at the Asian Rock Climbing Championships. She became the second woman to break this rule at an international competition since the 1979 revolution in Iran.

Photo: UGC / AFP

How realistic is it for "outside" involvement? Is there a threat to overthrow the government? What is the role of women in the current protests?

Media Loft talks about this with Ilhom Mirzoev, a researcher and graduate student at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences; Mehdi, a Persian language teacher from Tehran; and Irina, a tourist who caught the protests while traveling to Tehran and Isfahan (the names of the latter two characters have been changed).

- Is it dangerous to travel in Iran now?

Irina: Yes and no. It just so happened that my trip coincided with the protest activity; I only flew into the country for a week from September 23 to 30 (the country's largest protests were recorded on September 26, 40 days after Mahsa Amini's death).

Before entering Iran, our guides had arranged in detail in correspondence that we had to abide by the strict laws of the country during the whole trip: no alcohol, always covered head, long sleeves, floor-length dresses, long shirts with trousers or scarves, and it doesn't matter if it's +32 or +42 degrees Celsius outside.

As long as you are supervised by a group leader, there is nothing to be afraid of: we had a pre-planned itinerary, there was no language barrier, because there was always someone who knew Russian or English around. The sightseeing on our own is another matter.

- But still did anything unexpected happen?

Irina: An unpleasant incident happened one evening in Isfahan. After seeing the Allahverdi Khan Bridge, my friend and I parted ways with the guide and the rest of the group: they went back to the hotel, and we decided to walk around a bit more. I was wearing a hooded dress that day, with my ankles open by about four centimetres.

An Iranian passerby looked at me and, turning his gaze to my friend, addressed him in English: "Look at your woman. This is Iran. Be careful, it's dangerous," and gestured that he could get his head blown off for this.

Photos of Mahsa Amini from social media that have become a symbol of the protests

- How did you react?

Irina: I was frightened, we turned around and went towards the hotel. I was very scared that he would call the vice squad and they would take me away. As we walked back, the lights on the bridge had already been turned off, we crossed it and there was a cordon of 20 soldiers. They were armed and waiting for the protesters. Panic gripped me, holding my hood with one hand and pulling my dress down with the other to cover my ankles. In my mind I was already saying goodbye to all my relatives.

When we reached the cordon, we started talking loudly in Russian, apparently, it was such a defensive reaction. There was a sense that you were alone in this country, so unprotected and they could take you away and do anything.

In the end, though, they just looked at us, realised that they were dealing with foreigners, and didn't even stop us.

In general, I realized that in connection with the recent events in Russia, the official representatives of the authorities are rather friendly towards Russians, as if they are looking at you with the idea: "wow, we are now one team".

- What is the role of moral police in Iran in general?

Ilhom: After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the task of enforcing the Islamic dress code and norms in socio-cultural life fell on the shoulders of various structures, for example, in the streets it was done by members of the paramilitary organisation Basij.

In its current form, the morality police emerged in 2005, when the ultraconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration came to power after the failure of Mohammad Khatami's liberal-centre reformist government.

In theory, the moral police enforce the Islamic dress code not only for women, but also for men - they reprimand those who wear shorts, T-shirts with "indecent" prints or beards that are too long. In practice, it is the men who are reprimanded, but it is the women who face the brutality of the moral police, as the veil is the most obvious external attribute of Iran's Islamic identity.

Until 2020-2021, the president was considered to be the second most important official in IRI - while the Supreme Leader set the general direction of the country's development, the head of the executive offered his vision for achieving the set goals. However, after the parliamentary elections of 2020 and the presidential elections of 2021, there is a conservative trend in Iran and a narrowing of the political elite to the detriment of the institution of representation. The Office of the Supreme Leader plays an increasingly important role in the governance of the country.

- If, even before the protests, the morality police were constantly finding women who could be punished for looking "indecent", does this mean that Iranian women are generally not very strict about the dress code?

Irina: Personally, it seemed to me that it was all dependent on the context. The third day of the trip fell on the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad's death, and absolutely all Iranian women were wearing black scarves. Apparently they make an exception for tourists, because no one in our group was prepared for the mourning day, we were in bright red and yellow scarves.

In general, in shopping malls, restaurants, and even on the streets of Tehran I saw many Iranian families, where women could ostentatiously throw a headscarf over their shoulders in front of their husbands and children. But I have not seen unaccompanied Iranians do this.

- This time the situation is different because of a tragic incident.

Ilhom: A young girl was beaten to death for allegedly wearing a headscarf inappropriately. Not surprisingly, such a blatant case of police violence has created a wave of anger and outrage. But there are other factors as well.

Firstly, the activity of the vice squad has been gradually increasing since around spring/summer of this year, and with it, so has public resentment towards their activities.

Photo: AFP

The issue of gasht-e ershad (vice police) and the appropriateness of such a harsh line in the socio-cultural sphere had been the subject of lively debate even before the tragic death of Mahsa Amini.

Second, there is now unprecedented protest activity in the country amid Iran's dire economic situation. Over the past year, there has probably not been a single month in Iran without protests. In these circumstances, general dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country has been combined with protests against the arbitrary rule of the authorities, which, instead of normalizing the economy, is terrorizing people in the streets and beating girls in police custody.

- Would you comment on the myth that "the US has rocked the situation"?

Ilhom: It is not true. Otherwise it would mean that the whole vertical of power for 43 years has deliberately sabotaged its work and brought the country to the brink at the behest of the US, I find it hard to believe. Of course, they are using these organic events for their own purposes, but that's another story altogether.

- How does this kind of news even spread in Iran? Most social media is blocked.

Ilhom: The external internet (access to servers outside Iran) is not completely jammed, as it was during the petrol protests in autumn 2019. They reduce the speed of services during the hours of protest activity (reportedly from 4pm to 12pm), they cut off internet from mobile operators in a certain area (as in the case of protests in Sekez, where Mahsa Amini was born). But it is still possible, albeit difficult, to use internal services or even break through restrictions with a VPN.

Information about Makhsa Amini's death spread primarily through media channels, with Iranian émigré media covering the topic extensively. Even state television was forced to make a report on the subject.

True, it caused even more resentment in the public sphere as it promoted the version that Makhsa Amini had health problems (which the girl's relatives and friends categorically deny) and she suddenly died of a seizure. And there is the word of mouth, too.

- At first glance Iranians seem to be protesting against the country's tight control over social life. But it is known that Makhsa Amini is of Kurdish origin and has come to Tehran to visit her. Does the nationalist issue play a role here?

Ilhom: No, in my opinion the origin of the girl does not play a prominent role here. I would not reduce everything to the ethnic factor; nationwide we are seeing solidarity with protests both on the ethno-confessional periphery and in the central regions of Iran. But, of course, Mahsa Amini's Kurdish background is capable of drawing attention to the problems of ethno-religious minorities. And here, of course, the ethnic factor influences local protest - already restless Iranian Kurdistan (where Kurdish separatist organizations are active) gets an additional charge for unrest.

Mehdi: The Kurds in Iran have always been under pressure and oppression from the regime. This is a painful issue for all Iranians, not just the Kurds. For example, many people sympathize with the Kolbars, workers who live mainly in Kurdistan and carry heavy loads on their shoulders, making their way through the snow-covered mountains. This region has the highest unemployment rate in the country. They have to do this dangerous, illegal work to earn a living.

Against this background, it is especially sad and tragic that a young girl from a Kurdish town, who had come to Tehran just to visit her family, was killed.

This is why the story has been widely publicised.

Photo: Getty Images

- The main role in the protests was played by university students, but they were also joined by workers at the Abadan and Kangan refineries and the Bushehr Petrochemical Project, right?

Ilhom: There is a new trend in the protests of recent years. Whereas in the noughties the protest was associated with the political demands of the urban middle class, now the composition of the protesters since the winter of 2017 has been joined by the poor, representatives of various corporate associations.

Mehdi: The strike by workers in the oil and petrochemicals industry is very important to the protests.  Iran's economy is based on the exploitation of oil and petrochemical facilities.

- What are the protesters seeking? Can we say that the geography and scale of the protests indicate a point of no return and that the authorities will not succeed in ignoring the wishes of the population?

Ilhom: The composition of the protesters is very mixed, we hear a variety of demands ranging from the most conservative (apologies and the resignation of some officials) to the most radical (the violent overthrow of the Islamic Republic). Various political players both inside and outside Iran are trying to ride this wave of discontent.

But I don't see any organised and coordinated protests yet, hence no unified manifesto/list of protesters' demands.

Mehdi: The killing of young protesters has made people even more angry, and the brutal police response has added fuel to the fire, the uprisings in Iran are not subsiding. Protesters are now resolutely demanding the overthrow of the Islamic regime.

Screenshot of a hack of an Iranian state channel

- On October 10th, when the state channel was showing an address by Iran's spiritual leader Khamenei, an image of him with a target on his face and flames around him appeared on the screen, and below were pictures of Amini and other young women killed in the protest. A voice-over said the slogan of the protest movement: "Woman! Life! Freedom!". Can we say that this time the protests have a more feminine face?

Ilhom: In IRI, women have always been politically and economically active. Including women have actively participated in protests and peaceful demonstrations. Moreover, most of the students in Iranian universities are female students.

Iranian women have become symbols of protest before. For example, in 2009, student Neda Aghasoltan was shot and killed during the protests after the presidential election, making her a symbol of martyrdom and selflessness for the protesters.

Of course, the arbitrary gasht-e ershad that triggered the current wave of protests primarily affects the lives of women, hence the greater awareness and willingness to protest on their part. But, as you yourself pointed out, the protest is becoming more geographically and socially inclusive. It started as a protest for women's rights and freedoms, but it has gradually evolved into a spontaneous protest against the systemic, economic, and political crisis in Iran.

By: Anastasiia Tyukhtina

Cover photo: picture-alliance / dpa

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