From the moment that they seized Romina from her family home in a pre-dawn raid, the Iranian security forces designed every aspect of her two-week detention to terrify her.
Romina’s captors were determined to convince the young woman that she should give up on women-led street protests demanding improved rights.
Weeks of angry clashes and deaths – in what has been billed as Iran’s first feminist uprising – have presented an unprecedented challenge to the Islamic Republic. It is struggling to find an effective response.
At 3 a.m. one morning in late September, some 30 regime enforcers descended on the home in the northwestern city of Kermanshah to arrest Romina, as if she were wanted for murder – and not simply for peacefully attending protests.
Romina, who asked to be identified only by that name, was taken from her family, blindfolded, and driven into the night.
“They didn’t stop insulting me, repeatedly calling me a whore. I was just crying,” recalls Romina, who has a master’s degree in philosophy and owns an online business. “The touching and groping was a nightmare.”
So were the taunts to teach her a lesson about wanting to “overthrow the government.”
Upon arrival at what she later learned was an interrogation facility belonging to the intelligence unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Romina was pushed – still blindfolded – down a staircase, but managed to catch herself on a rail to break her fall.
During six blindfolded interrogations over the next three days, Romina, who today wears short black hair and a jovial smile, says her interrogator slapped her repeatedly in the face, pushed her off her chair, and made clear that “execution was definitely the verdict.”
“He once even tangled my hair in his hand and twisted it. It was terrifying,” recalls Romina. “I have always been a fearless girl, but that place was the end of the world to me. Especially when he said, ‘So, a women’s revolution, huh? You’ll be hanged from this lock of hair. Then you will see the outcome of your revolution, you [female dog], you mercenary.’”
Like legions of Iranians – often young Gen Zers – Romina had been prompted to take to the streets by the mid-September death in detention of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old picked up by Iran’s so-called morality police for letting too much hair show from under her headscarf.
In a burgeoning wave of protests, Iranian women have defiantly removed the mandatory headscarves and torched them – while adding to the flames portraits of Iran’s aging supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Pro-regime militia and riot police – despite the use of live ammunition and brutal beatings – have failed to contain the unrest. The demonstrators’ focus quickly widened beyond the intrusive enforcement of strict “morality” rules to include long-standing grievances, from economic misery to corruption. More than 15,000 Iranians have been arrested in more than 130 cities.
Yet as the protests spread with visceral intensity to every corner of the country, hard-line stalwarts doubled down, declaring that covering women’s hair was not only a pillar of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but also divine law.
The political and cultural chasms that divide Iranian society – between its Western-leaning secular youth and its aging ideologues, for example, and between its elite “haves” and a profusion of disenfranchised “have-nots” – have rarely been so wide and so obvious.
From fear to resolve
The trajectory of Romina’s experience helps explain why these protests – with their determined fist-pumping under the slogan “Women, life, freedom” – have outlasted crackdowns that have left more than 300 protesters dead, and shaken Iran’s self-declared “Government of God” to the core.
During her detention, Romina was accused of working with Iran’s archfoe Israel, or with militant Kurdish separatists, decadeslong enemies along with the United States and Britain, whom Iranian authorities blame for fomenting the unrest. She was told daily she could be executed.
But then something unexpected happened.
“As time went by, I felt I was getting stronger,” recalls Romina, as she realized she could not “confess to those stupid lies.”
“They knew it. They knew that those charges were just ridiculous,” she says. After five days she was sent to Dizel Abad Prison in Kermanshah, where, among the petty thieves held there, she found four fellow protesters, all younger – and very unbroken.
“They were so brave; I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Romina. “All four told me they would definitely go back on the [protest] line when they were released, but with new caution and tactics, so they don’t get so easily arrested.
“And yes, so have I.”
Jail did not create fear in Romina, but dispelled it.
Imprisonment “only strengthens my resolve and these people’s,” says Romina, with a renewed air of defiance. “The crackdown has completely failed. This revolution is well on its way. And I am happy I am part of it.”
Since the 1979 revolution swept away the shah and ushered in an era of strict Islamic rule, Iran has been no stranger to protests – or to their violent suppression.
In 2009, for instance, the pro-democracy Green Movement – which at one point drew 3 million Iranians into the streets of Tehran to protest the result of a stolen election – was crushed after eight months. And in 2019, nationwide demonstrations sparked by rising fuel prices lasted only a few days. Security forces firing live ammunition into crowds reportedly killed 1,500 people.
But never before have protests centered on women’s issues or been led by women, even spearheaded at times by high school girls without head coverings chanting their hopes for the regime’s overthrow.
And some protesters say this time they have abandoned nonviolent methods and are determined to fight back. Ridicule and further disobedience greeted Revolutionary Guard Commander Hossein Salami’s late October declaration: “Today is the end of the riots. Do not come onto the streets.”
Surprised to be facing a largely female vanguard, Iran’s clerical leadership – whose hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, has overseen a wide-ranging crackdown on women’s rights and civil society – has been at a loss.
Officials say they plan to conduct mass trials in Tehran, handing down the “harshest” punishment to “teach a lesson” to more than 1,000 detained “rioters.” Some are accused of moharebeh, or “waging war against God,” a charge often leveled against suspected spies that can lead to the death penalty. Five death sentences had been issued in three days, by Nov. 16.
Yet such measures risk eliciting more outrage than obedience.
“The all-powerful Islamic Republic is fighting kids. They are not just killing them, but bashing their heads in. It’s shameful,” says Sussan Tahmasebi, co-founder of an equal rights campaign for women two decades ago in Iran and today head of Femena, an organization that supports female human rights defenders.
Since last year, she says, Iran has waged an “all-out assault on all forms of civil society,” which it stepped up with the arrest of hundreds of rights defenders, lawyers, activists, and journalists immediately after Ms. Amini’s death.
“Three generations of women have had to deal with this level of humiliation,” says Ms. Tahmasebi, speaking from Washington.
“Young women, the Generation Z that we keep hearing about, really reject control of their bodies. They reject being told what to wear, and they’re asking for freedom; they are asking for serious political change,” she says.
Iran’s rulers, she says, will have to decide whether enforcement of dress code rules is “where they want to exert their energy, when they have such an incredible level of broad dissatisfaction among everybody – not just young women.”
“They cannot expect to force people – especially this younger generation – to do things so beyond what they are willing to do ... forever,” she says. “It’s going to be very difficult to put this genie back in the bottle.”
That much was clear as thousands clogged roads in their march to Ms. Amini’s grave Oct. 26 to mark the 40th day of mourning after her death. The protesters descended on the remote northeastern Kurdish town of Saqqez despite official warnings to stay away and the mass deployment of riot police.
At Ms. Amini’s grave, women took off their head coverings and chanted, “A death for a headscarf – how long will we endure?”
And as security forces battled protesters and fires burned across the country, another chant was heard: “This will be the year of blood – we will topple Khamenei!” It has been heard often since, at other “40-day” mourning gatherings, as each killed protester is remembered.
The roots of inflexibility
Just as strident have been statements from regime ideologues, who have warned about the high price of “sedition” and declared that enforcement of “hijab and chastity” should be ramped up even further.
“Any negligence on the issue of hijab is tantamount to treason,” declared Mohsen Mahmoudi, the hard-line cleric appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei to head the government’s powerful Coordination Council for Islamic Propagation. Violations, he said, would happen only “over our dead bodies.”
Likewise, if the morality police weaken or abandon their enforcement of the hijab, “the Islamic Republic will quickly collapse; indeed it will decay and rot,” warned Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, a member of Iran’s Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, another powerful state institution.
Instead of signaling any chance for compromise on enforcement – or recognizing that their own policies and corruption may have contributed to citizens’ hopelessness and rage – Iranian officials accuse outside forces, ranging from the CIA and Israel to Western-based Persian-language television channels, of inciting Iranians against their leaders.
“It’s so hard for them to accept a little bit of responsibility and blame,” says a veteran analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be identified further out of security concerns.
Yet he thinks it is possible the regime could take a step back.
He notes that the protesters’ slogan “Women, life, freedom” has a positive and inclusive ring, and “has the potential to unite millions – it is already doing that.”
Already, some supporters of the regime “are distancing themselves from the way this is going,” he says. “They don’t want to see dead people. They don’t want to see kids in their high schools being raided by the police and beaten up. ... This is something that – if the pressure grows – might lead the regime to show some flexibility.”
For now, though, any hints at willingness to engage with protesters have been overshadowed by threats of force. That uncompromising mindset predates the 1979 revolution: Many Iranians date the beginning of the end of the shah’s authoritarian rule to his admission that he had made mistakes.
The Tehran analyst also cautions that the Islamic Republic’s most fervent supporters care less than they once did about popular support for the regime.
Indeed, one foundational narrative of the Islamic Republic lionizes the truehearted underdog, in the form of Imam Hossein, who chose to die in the seventh century with his handful of followers rather than surrender to tens of thousands of enemy troops.
The analyst recounts a story from Iran’s post-election protests in 2009, when he spoke to a leader of the Basij, a militia under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, whose unit had broken up a group of students.
“I asked him, ‘What if the people don’t want you?’” recalls the analyst. “His answer was, ‘Yes, it could be possible. But actually, the right side of history has always been the minority – look at Imam Hossein.’”
“This thinking, I know, goes on in the minds of many” hard-liners, the analyst says. “When a majority are rioting, it doesn’t mean that they are right.”
The culture war
Disdain for “the other” permeates both sides of Iran’s social divide, as the Islamic Republic’s strictest rule-makers ossify in their 80s and 90s, and Gen Z “Zoomers” increasingly reject their diktat.
“Even if there is a change of regime, this culture war is not going to go away,” says Kian Tajbakhsh, a political scientist now at Columbia University, whose work in Iran led to two long periods of incarceration.
“On the motivational side, these kids are really fired up and angry – it’s a complete anachronism, this [hijab] situation, and they’ve had it,” Dr. Tajbakhsh says. And though the authorities might ease the pressure by limiting the enforcement of hijab rules, or reducing punishments, Dr. Tajbakhsh sees a clash of colliding worldviews preventing that.
“The Islamists don’t feel they coexist with other citizens who are equally citizens like they are, but simply have very different points of view,” he says. “They see them as kafir, as infidels, [and] foreign in that they don’t belong to this revolutionary belief.”
The protesters are despised as “unfortunate leftovers” of the idolatrous, deposed monarchy, he says, or “products of a global culture that is so powerful that even a righteous Islamist revolution can’t prevent it ... influencing this young generation with the wrong ideas.”
“They’ve always thought, ‘We will never ... get rid of these kinds of disturbances, or alien elements, so we’ll just have to manage them,’” adds Dr. Tajbakhsh. “They are not citizens to be assuaged, to be entered into dialogue with.”
What that denigrating mindset means on the streets of Iran was evident at a recent battle at the vast Ekbatan housing complex in Tehran, where live rounds and tear gas were fired into apartments during raids to stop people chanting from balconies against the regime.
“We swear to God that we will decapitate even our own families if we need to,” one battalion commander reportedly declared over a loudspeaker.
A broad front
Some regime tactics have succeeded in dampening protesters’ enthusiasm. One 17-year-old student from Sanandaj, in the western Kurdish region of Iran, describes being severely beaten and repeatedly threatened with rape for days at a Basij center in September, before he was transferred to a prison. After 10 days he was briefly brought before a judge, who set bail at $10,000.
The student’s father had to ask a friend to put up the title to his house as collateral, which means the young man has to be extremely careful to avoid any further brush with authorities. “Friends are looking at me like a hero,” he says. “But if I get arrested during those rallies again, I’ll be doomed.”
The protesters, however, seem largely unbowed.
A math teacher from Sanandaj explains why, noting that her girls’ school “keeps receiving threatening messages” from the education department that teachers will be held accountable if students chant.
“Are the students frightened by such pressure?” asks the teacher, who gives the name Yosra. “From what I can see, no. They are a different species; they won’t accept humiliation.”
Also unbowed is a team of three men in west Tehran who have joined the Mahsa Amini “revolution” in their own way. The middle-aged men, all engineers, fear the consequences for their families of participating in street protests, so have instead bought spray paint.
Wearing masks, the three go out on nighttime missions. One man drives, another films, and the third sprays anti-regime slogans and the names of those killed on the walls of militia, government, and religious centers.
“It’s a war, and no one can stop it,” says one, who asked not to be named.
“We are all like drops, but we will become rivers and then oceans once we are united, and that is exactly when the regime – no matter how dreadful and brutal it might appear – will crumble and drown.
“Believe me,” he adds, “we are already smashing ... the myth of their invincibility.”
An Iranian researcher contributed to this report.
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