The protests in Iran: on the demonstrations that grew into a national revolt

UU Humanities scholars on the Iran protests

Protest in Tehran, Keshavarz Boulevard. Foto: Darafsh, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Protest in Tehran, Keshavarz Boulevard. Photo: Darafsh, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Following the death of 22-year-old student Mahsa Amini on 16 September 2022, thousands of Iranians take to the streets every day. They are demonstrating for more freedom and equal rights. These protests in Iran target the regime of ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Since 2009, Iranians have revolted multiple times, but never before have the demonstrations in Iran been as massive and outspoken as those in recent months.

Unrest in Iran

Mahsa Amini was arrested in September in Tehran by the Guidance Patrol, the Iranian morality police, for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly. According to eyewitnesses, the Guidance Patrol beat up Amini to such an extent that she eventually died as a result of the police brutality.

In response to Amini's death, protests erupted in Iranian cities. Day by day, more people took to the streets. Key pillars of these Iranian protests are addressing the violence faced by the women of Iran and gaining greater freedom and equality.

Women of Iran and the regime

The first protests in Iran, mostly led by women, focused on the compulsory hijab and the Iranian regime. Since the 1979 Iranian-Islamic Revolution, the wearing of head coverings became compulsory, among others rules, and Iran's morality police enforce this law harshly.

Iraanse vlag op een gebouw in Teheran, Iran ©
Teheran, Iran ©

The demonstrations led to a national uprising in Iran, and the Iranian regime responded with an iron fist. According to CNN, the authorities deployed brute force, through forced confessions, threats and intimidation of family members and torture, including electric shocks, waterboarding and mock executions.

'Suspected' Iranians are stalked and tortured, before they disappear without a trace. To track individuals, the Iranian government uses GPS trackers and, with the help of China and Russia, maintains control over the internet.

Ongoing uprising in Iran

According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, since the start of the Iranian protests in the second half of September, the Iranian regime has arrested almost 20,000 Iranians and killed at least 527, including 71 children (figures from 7 February).

Yet the protests in Iran persist, and Iranian women and girls play a key role. Many thousands protest daily and calls for a new Iranian Revolution continue to grow.

Support for protests in Iran

Assistant professor in Religious Studies Pooyan Tamimi Arab, together with Ammar Maleki (Tilburg University), wrote an article for The Conversation (28 September 2022) on support for the protesters. They conclude that the protests are "reflective of the social reality in the country". By far the majority of Iranians oppose the compulsory hijab and the idea of an Islamic republic, according to surveys they conducted among Iranians from the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran.

The recent events are therefore only a small part of a larger religious shift taking place in Iran, Tamimi Arab signalled earlier in June. "Although they still believe in a God, younger Iranians in particular feel less and less for religion as an institution," he said in Trouw. "Two-thirds of Iranians think religion should have no influence on the country's legislation – they want a separation of church and state."

“81 per cent of Iranians do not want an Islamic republic”

In December 2022, GAMAAN conducted a new survey of the Iranian population. The results were revealed on 6 February 2023: a staggering 81 per cent of Iran’s literate adult population does not want an Islamic republic. Among Iranians living abroad, the figure is as high as 99 per cent. With similar percentages, support for the protests is also significant.

‘Support for protests in Iran significant: “81 per cent of Iranians do not want an Islamic republic”’ (6 February 2023)

When the news from Iran affects you personally

How do Raha Heshmatikhah, master's student in Clinical Psychology and Pooyan Tamimi Arab, assistant professor of Religious Studies – both UU scholars with Iranian roots – view the situation in Iran?

"Visiting Iran isn’t possible. Well, it is possible, but we wouldn’t get out alive," says Heshmatikhah. "I feel so much solidarity with the people there. If they dare to stand up, then surely, as a Dutch citizen, I should also take responsibility and do everything I can."

Heshmatikhah and Tamimi Arab spoke on Friday 28 October 2022 during Tegen de macht: vrouw, leven, vrijheid! (Fight the Power: Women, Life, Freedom!) at De Balie in Amsterdam. (21 October 2022)
Conference Tegen de macht: vrouw, leven, vrijheid! (28 October 2022)
Students at Amir Kabir University protest against the compulsory hijab and the Islamic Republic. Photo: Darafsh, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Iran's protest song

Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour was detained in late September after writing a protest song in response to the death of Mahsa Amini. Despite censorship, Hajipour's 'Baraye' ('Freedom') quickly became Iran's number one protest song.

Professor of Iranian and Persian studies Asghar Seyed-Gohrab thinks 'Baraye' is a brilliant song. "It expresses the defencelessness of people with little freedom of movement," he explains in de Volkskrant (12 October 2022). "They have to live by the oppressive rules of the Islamic regime, but the population demands something else. Just look at the sentence: 'Because of the desire for a normal life.' The Iranian people are aware of life outside Iran and want to be part of it."

Volkskrant (12 October 2022)

Criticism of Iran's regime

Criticism of the Iranian regime is expressed not only through music, but also in poetry. PhD candidate Zhinia Noorian's thesis 'Sapling of Hope' focuses on the work of Iranian poet Parvīn Iᶜtiṣāmī (aka Parvin E'tesami, 1907-1941).

With her verses, Iᶜtiṣāmī criticised issues that are still relevant today: women's rights and the feigned piety and hypocrisy of Iran's religious authorities.

PhD defence Zhinia Noorian (7 November 2022)

Women's rights in Iran

On 8 November 2022, the Beyond Sharia team, led by professor of Persian and Iranian Studies Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, organised a publicly accessible event on women's rights in Iran and its links to contemporary film, poetry and society.

Professor of Iranian film Nacim Pak-Shiraz (University of Edinburgh), researcher Zhinia Noorian and assistant professor Pooyan Tamimi-Arab spoke at the event.

Conference Islam, Gender and Society in Contemporary Iran (8 November 2022)