The smell of smoke wafts through the air. My father and I have returned from protests, and we are standing on the rooftop of my parents’ flat in central Tehran to have a clear view of the streets. It was June 20, 2009. One of the neighbors rushes up the stairs and, out of breath, tells us: “They’ve killed Neda.”
On the same night, watching the news on the Voice of America Persian News Network like millions of Iranians and many more around the world, the image of the dying moments of twenty-six-year-old Neda Agha Soltan and her bewildered black eyes covered with blood was permanently etched into my soul.
Agha Soltan was shot dead by security forces during the early days of the pro-democracy Green Movement triggered by the fraudulent results of the 2009 presidential election. The post-election protests, which resulted in dozens killed and hundreds imprisoned, rocked Iran for months and reshaped the nation for years to come.
Fast forward to mid-September in the current day, and another name was carved deep into the collective psyche of people in Iran and later the world: Mahsa Amini.
The twenty-two-year-old ethnic Kurd woman, also known by her Kurdish given name Jina, was arrested by Iran’s “morality police” on September 13 for “violating” strict hijab rules, or Islamic dress code.
Allegedly beaten up during her detention, she went into a coma in police custody and died three days later. Her body was buried hours after her death, with her family accusing the authorities of a cover-up.
Many women dancing to the chants of jubilant crowds have taken their hijabs off and burned them in bonfires on the streets. Others, in unprecedented scenes, have cut their hair in protest, with some doing that in main squares of major cities to chants of “death to the dictator.”
Although triggered by the death of Amini, the scope of the protests has gone beyond her death. People are now calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic chanting, “It is the year of the bloody [uprising] when [Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei] will be overthrown” and “I don’t want, I don’t want an Islamic Republic!”
A watershed moment
The ongoing protests are unparalleled and mark a watershed moment for Iran and possibly the Middle East as a whole: a women’s revolution that spans class and ethnic divides and hopes to tear down patriarchy manifested in its most violent form.
Over the years, the Islamic Republic’s inherent corruption and incompetence coupled with its unwillingness to change course and address the root causes of public grievances—in addition to its despotic nature—have led to reoccurring uprisings.
The frequency of these events has surged over the years. While, previously, there were long gaps between major uprisings, since December 2017, Iran has been rocked by protests every few months that have made international news headlines.
However, the current uprising is unparalleled on multiple fronts. It has galvanized all classes and social groups, with protests erupting in eighty-five cities across Iran, although this has come at the bitter price of dozens killed and thousands arrested.
In bridging class divides, the uprising has invigorated Iran’s middle classes to join the ranks of the struggle more actively.
The brutality of the 2009 crackdown and the Islamic Republic’s persistent persecution of civil activists had gradually eroded the stamina of the Iranian middle classes to fight for change. At the same time, under pressure from sanctions, systematic and endemic corruption, and mismanagement, the social group gradually crumbled and shrunk.
In turn, despite reoccurring bursts of socio-political movements rooted in civil society, the epicenter of protest and dissent in Iran had mostly shifted to the working classes.
Since 2017, amid a growing sense of anger and frustration, Iran has been the scene of reoccurring rounds of protests that, in most cases, were led by working classes and were triggered by economic grievances, including the government’s overnight decisions to jack up fuel and food prices and Iran’s ecological collapse and water crisis.
But just like most great revolutions, in the furnace of the uprising enflamed by the death of Amini, all lines dividing people have melted, forging them into a united hammer pounding the Islamic Republic and trying to push it back to the dark pits of history it had crawled out of.
Furthermore, as one Tehran University sociologist, Mohammad Reza Javadi Yeganeh, puts it, the uprising is “in the name of humanity,” unlike the 1979 Islamic Revolution that “was in the name of god” or the previous major protests that were triggered by political or economic grievances.
It also has no links to power struggles within the structure of the Islamic Republic. At its core, is people’s centuries-old struggle to attain the right to live by their own values and not what is dictated by Sharia or despots—“to live free or die.”
The continuity of the protests is also unprecedented. By the time this article was penned, people had taken to the streets for ten nights straight since the September 16 death of Amini. The 2009 Green Movement was interrupted by short or long hiatuses and the bloody November 2019 uprising was suppressed in a couple of days, during which thousands were killed and arrested as per reports from Amnesty International and Reuters.
A battle of symbols
Despite all that is novel about the current uprising, it should yet be seen as another link in the long chain of battles for freedom and justice in Iran.
The current uprising, especially, reflects a decades-old battle over the hearts and minds of the nation—a battle of symbols.
Every time people in Iran demand change, the Islamic Republic bludgeons them with tattered slogans that the regime will not allow the country to “deviate” from the “divine” path set by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. They argue that any deviation from that path would be tantamount to “desecration” of the blood of martyrs killed in the “sacred” Iran-Iraq war.
This worldview over the years has been the pillar of the cult that the Islamic Republic is—one that encourages children to sing hymns praising the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, pledge allegiance to him, and vow to sacrifice their lives for the eighty-three-year-old cleric.
However, over the years, Iranians have reclaimed many of these symbols through pop culture. The nation has also given birth to a wide array of symbols, from martyrs like Mahsa Jina Amini and Neda Agha Soltan—martyrs who “don’t die”—to symbols of defiance: images of women cutting their hair in public and burning headscarves. The Islamic Republic’s threadbare symbols have no chance of surviving this battle.
Beating heart of Kurdistan
Kurdish blood and its tradition of resistance have intertwined all these battles at this pivotal moment in Iran’s history.
Subjected to decades of persecution in Iran—from mass executions to marginalization and cultural erasure—Kurds have a strong culture of resistance and robust networks that can organize protests and general strikes in days, if not hours.
In response to Amini’s death, Kurdistan province immediately erupted in solidarity with her family—a united front in the face of the Islamic Republic’s war on women.
When her family feared persecution, people in Kurdistan province chanted “fear no more,” since the people stand by them.
When children of Kurdistan were killed, fathers told the nation while burying their kids: “Take the hands of your children and go to protests. Be the harbingers [of change].”
And, above all, when Amini died, her family marked her fresh grave with a short line that united all of Iran: “Dear Jina you won’t die. Your name will become a symbol.”
Since then, Amini’s grave and Kurdistan province have turned into a beating heart pumping blood and rage through the veins of Iran. This is evident by the chant, “women, life, liberty”—the battle cry of Kurds in their decades-old fight against the forces of darkness, from the Islamic Republic to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which has echoed through Iran.
It would be only fitting if the Islamic Republic is toppled by that very phrase.
Sayeh Isfahani is an advocate, journalist, and Internet researcher with years of experience working in Iran, including work related to the LGBTQI community.
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