Mahsa Amini could never have foreseen the legacy she would leave when so-called “morality” police in Iran detained her for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely. As Amini was bundled into a police van, eye-witnesses saw her being violently beaten. Just three days later, on 16 September, 22-year-old Amini was dead – her family reporting bruises on her body and rejecting the police’s claim that she’d died of a heart attack.
What followed was an eruption. It started small, with women removing their headscarves at Amini’s funeral in Saqez, and chanting “death to the dictator”. But as news spread, so did the outrage and pain. Within days protests had spread to Tehran, to Rasht, to Mashhad, and Isfahan.
The protests rage on, and security forces have responded with unlawful force. According to Amnesty International, authorities have fired live ammunition and metal pellets at protesters at close range, misused tear gas and water cannons, and severely beaten people with batons. Since Amini’s death, rights groups have recorded the deaths of at least 185 men, women and children. Hundreds of others have sustained serious injuries. Most are not seeking hospital treatment for fear of arrest.
But despite the threat of death and violence, thousands of protesters, many of them women, continue to take to the streets. The Iranian regime has largely shut down access to WhatsApp and Instagram, but clips of women burning their hijabs and boldly dancing in the face of brutality have gone viral.
It is difficult to comprehend their bravery. In an interview with the New Yorker last week Stanford political scientist and expert on revolutions Daniel Edenstein argued the role played by Iranian women in the recent protests may be the first time in history that women have been both the catalyst and the drivers of an attempted revolution.
As the Iranian regime tries to cover up the deaths of the women and girls who have dared to march for their rights, their stories and calls for freedom are spreading across the globe.
There was Hadis Najafi, 23, a TikTok user not known for her activism, but gunned down in her home city regardless, campaigning for her right to live and dress how she wanted.
There was Nika Shakrami, 16, a teenager who kept her hair cut short and wore black mesh fingerless gloves. There was Sarina Esmaeilzadeh, also 16, a schoolgirl who like so many girls her age liked to share her life online, posting videos in which she sang, danced and cooked.
Scores of families in Iran are mourning the deaths of loved ones – many of them teenagers – who have paid the ultimate price for freedom.
But the fire is still burning. Last week videos showed teenage pupils at schools across the country waving their headscarves in the air and shouting defiant protest slogans.
The faces of Mahsa Amini, Hadis Najafi, Nika Shakrami and Sarina Esmaeilzadeh have become the symbols of a new uprising in Iran – an uprising led by the young, by women, by those whose fire cannot be extinguished.