Hoping for Change in Iran: From Aban 2019 to the Amini 2022 protests

Marilena Stegbauer

On 16 September 2022, Niloofar Hamedi, a journalist at reformist daily newspaper Shargh in Tehran, posted a picture to her Twitter account of a couple hugging while crying in front of their daughter’s hospital room, Mahsa Jina Amini. The 22-year-old died later that day.

The death of Amini sparked the on-going protests in Iran, which are currently in their eighth week. They are the longest and most widespread protests the country had seen since the Islamic revolution in 1979 when Shah Pahlavi was ousted by the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), Ayatollah Khomeini.

Only a few days later, on 22 September, Hamedi was arrested, her house raided by security agents and her Twitter account suspended without explanation. According to her lawyer, she is currently in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where she faces permanent interrogation and, possibly, torture and other forms of sexual violence.

Hamedi’s courage and that of other journalists reporting on gross human rights abuses committed by the IRI despite the looming threat of arrest, arbitrary detention and torture and/or other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment and, ultimately, death cannot be overstated. Without Hamedi’s reporting, Iranians and the world would have never learned about the faith of Amini, whom Iran’s “morality police” had arrested for inappropriately wearing the hijab on 13 September while visiting family in Tehran. 

The scale and intensity of the protests following Amini’s death surprised the regime, which in contrast to the November protests of 2019, had little time to prepare a response to the public outcry that took the country by storm. In contrast, in 2019, the government itself announced a steep hike in fuel prices on 15 November; thus, it was able to anticipate resistance and plan oppressive and lethal countermeasures in advance.

Testimony of insider witnesses of Iran’s Atrocity Tribunal (“Aban Tribunal”), an International People’s Tribunal set up by civil society to address impunity for gross human rights violations pertaining to the 2019 protests, confirmed that. For example, a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) testified that he was told a week before the announcement of the increase in gas prices to “be ready.” (Aban Tribunal Judgment, para. 518). The Aban Tribunal was crucial in targeting impunity and providing witnesses with a platform to tell their stories and contribute towards justice for the 2019 protests, leaving many victim-survivors empowered after having been silenced by the IRI.

The November 2019 protest ended on 19 November after merely four days, leaving hundreds killed and thousands injured, detained, arrested and disappeared. The protests sparked by the death of Amini have so far lasted 14 times as long. One reason for this is that the current protests, although initially started by a gender issue, have swiftly moved beyond addressing broader civil and political rights and gender equality.

As a result, the hijab became a symbol of wider grievances that also shows in hijab-wearing women supporting those women who took them off: It is about the right to choose to wear a hijab. Iranians want to be free of a government that has brutalised women and girls for decades through fines, imprisonment and constant surveillance through the “morality police.”

The female-led protests were swiftly joined by men and boys openly supporting women. Thus, the current protesters represent a broad part of society, making them more durable and challenging to break up. Moreover, as one observer aptly put it, Amini was an “ordinary girl” from a small city taken from her family and, therefore, easy to sympathise with. Consequently, it is easy to feel emotional about her plight and that matters.

In comparison, the November 2019 protests were sparked by an increase in fuel prices, a social-economic cause that predominately affected Iran’s lower-middle class and the poor. Even though protests were reported in 29 out of 31 Iranian provinces (Aban Tribunal Judgment, para. 478) and protesters came from various socio-cultural backgrounds, the increase in petrol merely added to the economic hardship that most Iranians had gotten used to living under decades of Western-imposed sanctions. The poor were mainly bearing the brunt of the increase and were the ones who took to the street in 2019, with the mainstream of society not feeling a particular emotional attachment to the cause.   

Emotions and a sense of belonging are fuelling the current protests in Iran. Even though there has been no immediate success, like abolishing the compulsory hijab laws or accountability of the “morality police,” the inherently voluntary nature of joining the protests makes it an intrinsically rewarding experience. That is because even though protests are born out of despair, anger, desperation and dissatisfaction with the political system, peaceful protests sing of hopes for change.

Conversely, even though protesters, including children, continue to get gunned down, they show no sign of abating. On the contrary, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have created a community by fighting for the same cause and underlying values trusting each other as one group. Humans are social animals that perceive humans similarly to themselves as safe. Protests are the epitome of that perception.

It also explains why the criminal plan that the IRI successfully employed in crushing the November 2019 protests did not deter Iranians from engaging in the on-going protests. The Aban Tribunal judgement elaborates:

“The criminal plan/strategy was calculated to brutally punish and deter all those who participated in or supported the protests together with members of their families. […] The purpose of this strategy was to ensure that a visible example was made of all those alleged to have participated in the protests in order to ensure that the protests would disperse and would not be repeated.” (Aban Tribunal Judgment, para. 48).

The systematic and brutal crackdown during the November 2019 protests did not have the deterrent effect that the IRI had hoped for. Therefore, the IRI attempted to divide protesters and their sense of unity along ethnic lines by inciting violence, i.e., it tried to pit Kurds and Azerbaijanis against each other as both groups have longstanding disputes over land, water, and other resources. So far, these attempts to create upheaval and self-destruction within the group of protesters have failed.

Amini was Kurdish, with an increasing number of commentators arguing that Iran’s minorities may hold the key in the upraising’s course. The Kurds, Arabs, and Baluchis, along other minorities, were severely targeted by security forces during the November 2019 protests. Amnesty International reported that Khuzestan and Kermanshah had the highest verified death toll after the poverty-stricken suburbs of Tehran.

Both provinces are home to many Arabs and Kurds and experienced a brutal crackdown on protesters in 2019 as minorities are perceived as a threat to national security and enemies of the regime. Furthermore, members of minorities are some of the poorest in Iranian society due to a lack of access to education and systematic discrimination. Therefore, Aban Tribunal evidence suggests a correlation between areas with high levels of poverty seeing increased numbers of protesters killed. 

As Shaffer observes, Iran’s multi-ethnic nature and the impact that this can have on Iranian politics is frequently overlooked in the West. Minorities make up more than half of Iran’s population and tend to dominate border regions, maintaining close ties with neighbouring ethnicities in Iraq, Azerbaijan and Pakistan. Minorities are regularly blamed for internal upheaval and experience higher rates of incarceration and execution based on national security charges.

On 30 September, security forces opened fire on residents as they were leaving Friday prayers in Zahedan in the Sistan Baluchistan province close to the Pakistan border, home to many people from the Baluch ethnic group perpetrating a massacre leaving 80 dead. The province has also seen killings of children like other minority-dominated provinces where IRI security forces targeted schoolchildren.

A recent BBC investigation identified clusters of killed protesters within the minority-strong provinces of Sistan Baluchistan, West Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan. In addition, the investigation identified another cluster comprised of two provinces north of Tehran, namely Alborz and Mazandaran. The Aban Tribunal produced evidence from every province except for North Khorasan. Evidence from Chaharmahal province was presented but not featured in the Tribunal’s judgment, finalised on 01 November 2022.

Regarding the current situation in North Khorasan, a protester can be seen in this YouTube video setting fire to a poster of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The video was posted on 11 October 2022 by People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK). The video’s authenticity has not been independently verified.  

In August, protesters took to the street in Shahrekord, the regional capital of Chaharmahal, to raise awareness about severe water shortages in the region. The protests prompted environmental experts to highlight that the global climate crisis has amplified the droughts and floods plaguing Iran and that their intensity and frequency threaten food security. Unfortunately, there is currently little reporting available about the situation in Chaharmahal in light of the on-going protests.

Despite a lack of evidence from certain parts of the country, especially remote areas, the current protests are much more widespread than the November 2019 protests, with new videos and information about killings emerging daily. The death toll is expected to increase as the protests continue. In stark contrast to the November 2019 protests, women and children are the main victims as they are leading the current protests following the death of Amini.

According to Amnesty International, children (those under 18 years old) represent 16% of the overall deaths of protesters and bystanders in the current protests. Importantly, the report only covers ten days, from 20-30 September 2022; thus, the percentage might change as the protests continue. In comparison, at the November 2019 protests, Amnesty International verified 321 deaths, of which roughly 6.5% were children and less than 3% were women.

It is unclear how many women have died in the current protests. What is, however, clear is that women, particularly young women, remain at the forefront of the protests, having coined the slogan that is now chanted at protests in Iran and around the world: “Woman. Life. Freedom.”

Many women, like journalist Niloofar Hamedi, have been arrested. On 06 November 2022, the Iranian parliament called upon the judiciary to issue death sentences for all arrested. The regime seems determined to establish an example through mass executions, bringing back painful memories of the mass executions of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Back then, the entire massacre was kept as a state secret and denied by Iranian officials. Only one individual, a former IRI assistant prosecutor, was held accountable for this state crime. While the threat of mass executions is again looming in Iran, there will be no secrecy this time. The world is watching.

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