HomeLearning CenterA Year After Mahsa Amini’s Death: Repression and Defiance in Iran

A Year After Mahsa Amini’s Death: Repression and Defiance in Iran

Originally published by Miriam Berger for the Washington Post

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.”

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.

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