An Iranian police officer stands on a street after the return of the morality police in Tehran in July. (Majid Asgaripour/West Asia News Agency/Reuters)
A year ago, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police sparked a popular uprising, led by women and young people, that rattled the pillars of the Islamic Republic: clerical rule, gender segregation and the security state.
In the end, the leaderless movement, clustered in pockets across the country, was no match for the keepers of Iran’s authoritarian system.
Its clerical leaders are still standing, having brutally crushed the demonstrations. More recently, they have strengthened the kind of strict social controls that gave rise to the protest movement.
The last year allowed the world to glimpse the seething anger just below the surface of a repressive society, and to document government abuses. But it also highlighted the resilience of the regime, and the limits of international accountability.
Amini’s official autopsy says she died on Sept. 16, 2022, of preexisting conditions – and not, as her family and rights groups maintain, from being fatally beaten by the morality police. She was detained for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code for women, which includes a mandatory hijab, or headscarf.
The two female journalists who broke the news of Amini’s hospitalization and death remain jailed, on trial for treason.
In recent weeks – ahead of the anniversary of Amini’s death – authorities fired and arrested teachers, musicians and activists for supporting the protest movement; threatened to rearrest some 20,000 demonstrators out on furlough; and detained family members of protesters killed by security forces.
But Tehran has not emerged from the uprising unscathed, according to analysts, human rights advocates and ordinary Iranians — many of whom say they are just waiting for the next spark. As some women continue to defy social restrictions, Iran’s hard-line factions are at odds, experts say, setting the stage for the next confrontation.
“The biggest win for this movement, despite all the defeats and all the losses, is that people feel they can make a change,” said Sarah, 40, an architect in Iran.
She plans to attend a covertly-planned protest Saturday to mark Amini’s death, and remains committed to the struggle — “However hard, however long and time-consuming.”
People march on the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, during a protest outside the White House in Washington, on Sept. 16. (Allison Bailey/Reuters)
Tehran doubles down
Sarah took off her headscarf in public for the first time during the protests last year, in a moment of breathless exhilaration. She still walks the boulevards of the Iranian capital bareheaded, but the crackdown has taken its toll.
“The ambiguity and anxiety” that Iranians live with “has caused depression and mental collapses in a lot of people around me,” said Sarah, speaking to The Washington Post on the condition she be identified by her first name out of fear for her safety.
Women’s casting off and burning their headscarves became a prominent act of defiance in the early weeks of the protest movement. But the hijab was only one symbol among many, in an uprising that was, more deeply, about challenging state control.
Amini’s death brought together men and women, veiled and unveiled. Different classes and ethnic groups united around a Kurdish chant: “Woman, life, freedom.”
The government responded as it had during past protests, using overwhelming force to retake the streets. The crackdown was especially harsh in the historically marginalized Kurdish northwest, where Amini was from, and where protests were most widespread.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said the protesters were “instigators” and “criminals,” backed by nefarious foreign powers, and he praised Iran’s security forces who “sacrificed their lives to protect people from rioters.”
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a parallel force loyal to the supreme leader, was key to crushing the demonstrations. Over six months, security forces killed more than 500 Iranians, according to rights groups. Tens of thousands were detained. Seven protesters were executed after hasty trials.
Repression is the Islamic republic’s “modus operandi,” said Narges Bajoghli, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
But if the crackdown in the streets was familiar, the aftermath has been messier for the regime. One factor distinguishing these protests, Bajoghli said, “is a fracturing within the conservative and hard-line elements in power.”
Some sides are calling for relaxing unpopular policies like mandatory veiling, to pacify the public while preserving the overall system; others are saying “if we give in on this, then we can give in on anything,” she said.
The list of punishments for women who disobey the dress code keeps intensifying. Hefty fines. Banking restrictions. Business closures. Jail time. Forced labor. Travel bans. Being diagnosed as mentally ill.
Authorities have put up cameras to catch unveiled women in their cars and on the streets. In March, Sarah refused to pay a fine when a surveillance camera caught her without a headscarf. Weeks later, her car was impounded.
“This pressure has clearly increased and taken on a new form,” she said. “It is more systematic.”
A new hijab bill under discussion in Iran’s parliament proposes up to ten years in prison for improper attire and fines up to $1,000 – an impossible sum in Iran, where the economy is in free-fall. A U.N. panel of human experts said the law would be tantamount to “gender apartheid.”
Human rights lawyer Sara Hossain has a monumental task ahead of her. She leads the United Nations’s first independent fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations related to the protests in Iran, with a focus on women and girls.
It’s a slow process: The mission’s final report isn’t due until March.
“We’re trying to do our best to do this independently and to get at what has happened, to find the truth,” Hossain told The Post.
Throughout the uprising, the United Nations, United States and European Union issued statements condemning the crackdown on demonstrators. New Western sanctions targeted Iranian officials and IRGC businesses connected to the violence, deepening Iran’s international isolation.
But it was a notable first when the U.N. Human Rights Council established the mission in November by a vote of 25-6, with 16 abstentions.
Tehran swiftly rejected the mission and barred its investigators from the country.
From their main office in Geneva, 16 full-time employees rely on open-source material and remote interviews with victims and eyewitnesses inside the country. They collect and verify evidence of torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and executions.
The biggest challenge, Hossain said, is ensuring the safety of interviewees inside the country: Iran tightly censors communication and retaliates against Iranians who speak up. Basic phone calls can be compromised. VPNs used to circumvent online censorship are costly and imperfect.