By Anisa Williams ’25; Image by NPR
The end of 2022 marked a turning point for the Iranian regime. On 16 September, Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Morality Police and beaten to death while in police custody. Her crime? Not wearing her veil properly. The world erupted in the subsequent weeks, with women cutting their hair online and thousands taking to the streets proclaiming zan, zendigee, azadi (women, life, freedom). The movement quickly gained traction in every corner of the population and morphed from anger concerning Iran’s treatment of women into a larger battle against the nation’s theocratic government. Cries of “Death to the Dictator” became a rally point, while strikes in more than 50 cities across the country transformed bustling commercial hubs into ghost towns.
For a while after Mahsa Amini’s death, the regime remained on rocky footing. Both the soccer team’s refusal to sing the national anthem during the World Cup and the movement’s prominentmedia presence garnered international attention. United Nations’ experts furthered worldwide publicity by urging for “Iranian authorities to stop using the death penalty as a tool to squash protests and […] release all protesters who have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty,”. Moreover, countries such as the United States and Canada imposed sanctions to target officials responsible for the human rights violations occurring within the nation.
Yet, in the past month, the movement’s energy has quieted: thousands no longer flood the streets, infographics have been erased from people’s Instagram feed, and news channels have moved on to other pressing issues. What’s more troublesome is that the Iranian government has taken advantage of this lull by reimposing strict dress codes that many women ignored during the movement. With cruel government crackdowns compounded with a decrease in mobilization, questions have arisen regarding the protests’ future.
Although the movement’s energy has dampened and revolutionary tactics have subsequently transformed, strong opposition against the intelligence-security state still remains. However, actively voicing and participating in protests is more complicated than ever. Because the movement has quieted, individuals have a higher revolutionary threshold; in turn, this makes the risk of their involvement greater than the reward. One man identifies this conflict, saying: “I don’t want to risk my family’s livelihood to no avail, and I don’t want these kids to sell their lives cheap.” Because of this dilemma, many Iranians have found ways of forging their revolutionary path. The true power now lies with the unseen: with quiet, hidden, and ordinary people.
Reports have identified new ways in which people are protesting: women refuse to wear headscarves in public, chants of Zan, Zandegi, Azadi, “Death to the Islamic Republic, and “Poverty Corruption, High prices, Onwards to the Overthrow,” are exclaimed from balconies every night at 9:00, and revolutionary slogans appear newly spray-painted on walls in the morning. Neighborhoods that previously provided the military with supplies have transformed into centers for protests, while shops that once closed at the first sign of trouble remain open late into the night to provide fleeing revolutionaries protection from Iran’s military.
The once blatant and irate revolution has morphed into a revolt active in the shadows. And while I do not believe that these small but mighty acts will result in the transformation of the Iranian regime, they remain a harbinger of change. One woman puts it: “We will go on… Maybe we’ll have to change tactics in the short term. We’ll probably have to adjust to the situation we’re in. But we won’t stop. We’ll keep stoking the embers of this fire until one day, somehow, we can get the masses back out on the streets, get the gray caste to fully commit. And then this fire will blaze so hard it will incinerate this tyrannical regime.”
If the senseless killing of Mahsa Amini has taught the world anything, it is that the people of Iran are ready and eager for transformation. For now, however, it is the courage of the few that propels the movement forward. These silent movers will, when given the chance, provide the spark to reinvent and challenge the Iranian regime forever.