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Say Their Names

Revolt of the Year: The Iranian Women Uprising

The Islamic Republic’s theocratic elite are on the ropes.

Getty Images
A protester holds up a note reading “Woman, Life, Freedom, #MahsaAmini” while marching down a street on October 1 in Tehran, Iran.

It takes a special kind of coward to kill a child and steal the body. To execute someone, and only tell their family afterward. To shoot at people chanting the word “freedom,” and shut off the internet in hopes that no one will find out. In the last three months, the Islamic Republic of Iran has done all of this and more.

It is hard to explain to those who have never lived under the Islamic Republic just how many ordinary things are illegal. If you are born a girl, from the age of nine, you must wear a headscarf everywhere you go. Men’s dress is policed too: no shorts, tank tops, or hair that is un-Islamic. You cannot dance in public, and if you are a woman, you cannot sing either. You cannot hang out with anyone of the opposite gender who you are not directly related to (and under the Islamic Republic, there are only two genders). Same-sex relationships are illegal, and leaders pretend that gay people do not exist. Music, art, and cinema is illegal if the regime decides it is. Half the internet is filtered by government censors, and virtual private networks, though prevalent, are illegal too.

And of course, do not forget the morality police. On September 16, Iranians were reminded yet again of their bleak reality, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, known to her loved ones by her Kurdish name Jina, died in police custody.

In English-language media, it is often written that Amini was arrested by the morality police due to her improper hijab. But by all accounts, she was wearing nothing out of the ordinary. She was visiting family in Tehran, and at the time of her arrest, she was with her brother. Her brother later shared a photo of what Amini was wearing. There were no bright colors. She was wearing a full headscarf, with only a bit of hair showing, and a loose, long manteau covering her body. Iranians, especially those in the capital, regularly get away with far worse.

But there is no logic in the Islamic Republic’s rules, or in whom the morality police chooses to target. And that day, the police decided to take Jina from her family.

Two hours after her arrest, Amini lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital. After three days in a coma, she died. Iranian authorities tried to blame her death on preexisting conditions, though Amini’s father said she had none. Later reports revealed that she had actually suffered repeated blows to her head, causing bone fracture, hemorrhage, and brain edema.

When Iranians learned of the news, their country changed forever. For the last three months, they have been protesting every day. A lot has already been written about how this uprising is different from any others the country has seen. Protests are taking place across the country, and led by provinces home to ethnic minorities like Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan. Women and girls are taking their hijabs off and walking boldly down the street, as if the laws have already changed. And young people are at the forefront of every protest. The loudest chant since the very beginning has been an old Kurdish slogan against state oppression, which has also been translated into Farsi, thus recognizing the precarious lives of women and ethnic minorities in Iran: Jin, jiyan, azadi. Zan, zendegi, azadi. Woman, life, freedom. It is a simple chant, but it is a subversive one.

The Islamic Republic has responded exactly like a regime that knows it is at its end: with brute force and desperation. When a woman ate breakfast without a hijab in her neighborhood, she was arrested. When a rapper predicted the end of the regime, he was arrested. Two protesters have been executed, after sham trials and charges like “waging war with God.” When an actress in an Oscar-winning movie criticized the first executions, she too was arrested.

Hundreds of protesters have been blinded. Women in prison are asking for birth control because of mass sexual assault. Doctors helping injured protesters have been tortured and killed. And for every revolutionary photo of a woman, girl, or child defying the authorities, there is news of another one killed.

In its attempts to prove it did not kill Amini, the regime has killed at least 500 others, around 70 of them children. More than 18,000 people have been arrested. All of these numbers are expected to be higher, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency. The two women who reported on Amini’s death, Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, were arrested some time ago, but earlier this month, so was their lawyer.

But the truth is simple: Everyone cannot be arrested. The prisons are not big enough, even if they burn them to the ground and rebuild them. And the people have been clear: For every person killed, there are 1,000 more behind them. Every funeral has turned into its own protest; every person killed becomes another reason to resist the state. And this cycle will continue, until the people’s demands are met.

For 43 years, since the very beginning of the Islamic Republic, Iranians have been living in fear. Not the fear you feel when you walk alone late at night, or the fear that someone may break into your house. The thieves are already inside the house. They are taking all your things, and you are searching for just one corner in which to stay safe. It is a fear that permeates every ordinary decision you make, and makes you feel a little bit uneasy anywhere you go. You hide your joys, your sorrows, your anger. Because if you are too loud, they will come for you next.

But for once, it is no longer the people’s turn to be afraid. Earlier this month, Iran was kicked off the U.N. women’s rights commission, a sharp international rebuke of this regime’s atrocities. Inside the country, there have already been three three-day total economic shutdowns, bringing everything to a standstill—and the pace at which the strikes are occurring is increasing. One of Iran’s most prominent political prisoners recently released a letter encouraging the people: “This revolution is inevitable.”

Amini’s death unleashed in all Iranians an anger that has been building for 43 years, because we knew she could have been any of us. She was all of us. She is Nika, Sarina, Hadis, and Mona; Kian, Khodanur, Mohsen, and Majidreza. She is every political prisoner, every Iranian who has been forced into silence or into the diaspora, every person who dreams of a better future. In the name of the God of rainbows, may this finally be the end.