80 days of defiance: Iranians describe life amid the thrilling wave of female-led rebellion that has gripped the nation and the terrifying crackdown
- Millions of Iranians have been protesting for months, calling for an end to the theocratic regime.
- The female-led movement has rivaled all previous displays of disruption in the authoritarian country.
Noura almost never wears her hijab these days.
For nearly 40 years, women in Iran have been required to don the modesty headscarf in public. But in the streets of Noura's city and across the entire country, more and more women are shirking their hijabs. They burn them in the streets in audacious acts of defiance or simply forgo the scarves in quieter displays of opposition against Iran's theocratic regime.
Noura's bare head and others like it have become the new normal in Iran in a mere matter of months. The country's "morality police," the institution that would typically be charged with rectifying such disobedience, are too busy to patrol these rule-breakers.
Their focus, along with the entirety of Iran's security forces, is elsewhere these days: In the streets, cities, towns, and suburbs of Iran, where millions of people have protested for more than 80 days in a female-led mass movement unlike any previous displays of disruption or demonstration in the notoriously authoritarian country.
"You're risking your life and you may not come back," said Noura, a first-year university student in Tehran, whose real name is being withheld by Insider for her safety. "But I feel unified. I feel we are all together in this."
Four Iranians of different genders and generations spoke to Insider about the thrilling — yet terrifying — wave of rebellion that has gripped the nation in recent months, enveloping people from all walks of life in a stunning display of solidarity and defiance. After decades of hostility under harsh reign, the Iranian people are ready to sacrifice everything to topple the regime, Insider's sources said.
Noura and two other protesters who spoke to Insider, Omid and Raha, are risking their lives in talking to Western media, they said. Out of an abundance of caution and a fear of government surveillance, two of the three shared recorded answers with an outside source who then translated and shared their remarks with Insider.
Each chose an alias: Noura opted for the Persian word meaning light; Omid chose a name of hope; Raha means freedom.
Women are taking the lead after decades of inequality
The leaderless movement was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old ethnically Kurdish woman who died after she was arrested for allegedly violating Iran's strict hijab law in Tehran on September 13.
"[Mahsa] was like any ordinary girl in Iran," said Omid, a Tehran-based musician in his mid-30s, whose real name is known by Insider. "Even she couldn't live here, even she couldn't survive. This was the last straw in a way."
Mass mourning for one 22-year-old woman quickly transformed into fiery displays of Iranians' disdain for the country's theocratic regime, marking the most significant internal threat to Iran's powerful clerics since they came to power in the 1979 revolution.
The protests have drawn a diverse array of participants, but there's no question that the movement is being spearheaded by Iran's women and young people, furious and unrelenting in their demands for equality.
Women in Iran suffer under one of the most restrictive regimes in the world when it comes to gender rights. Under the country's strict Islamic constitution and penal code, women have long been treated as second-class citizens: Married women are barred from leaving the country without their husband's consent; schoolgirls as young as nine are required to cover their heads; and college-educated women face hiring discrimination and inequity in the workplace.
"I see a lot of women my age that have been suffering for so long," Raha, a mother of two in her mid-40s, told Insider. "They've been suppressed; they've been limited. Their rights have been denied for so long. And you just look at them and you see the anger in their eyes."
"They don't have anything to lose," she added. "They have been suffering for so long."
Iran's culture of discrimination and inequality led Azadeh, 40, an Iranian-born artist, to leave her country and family for opportunities abroad as a young woman. After nearly two decades living in Australia and the US, she's seen what the rest of the world has to offer women.
"I don't think men can ever change in Iran enough for me to feel that I could be as loud or as crazy or as ugly or as messy or as angry or as whatever that I want to be," said Azadeh, who is also using an alias out of concern for the safety of her family members in Iran. "I thought I have to behave, or I have to control many things about me, change many things about myself that I can't."
Watching from afar as her country's women — including several members of her own family — fight back against the rampant injustice has been both exhilarating and frightening, she said.
Intergenerational fury has helped fuel the female resistance, Raha said. Watching her own daughter endure the same struggles that she herself has suffered as a woman in Iran has ignited her anger.
"I would wear my hijab all my life until the last day of my life if I felt that my kids could have a safe life here," she told Insider.
The country's younger women, however, have opted for a more aggressive approach.
"They couldn't do it," Noura, a member of Gen Z, said of Iran's older generation. "So we're doing it. There's no time to talk and discuss anymore. We just have to get rid of this regime."
Men have in large swaths stepped up to support the women's fight, sources told Insider.
"A lot of women have been forced to stay quiet for so long. That's why they are the leaders of this movement now," Omid said. "The best thing we can do as men is to support them and just be so excited that they're doing a great job."
Protests spring up spontaneously — but can quickly turn deadly
Electrifying photos and video from protests across Iran over the last two-and-a-half months have offered the outside world a glimpse of the fervor taking hold in the streets. Sources told Insider that it's terrifying to attend the demonstrations; the risks are unquantifiable.
—Khosro Kalbasi Isfahani (@KhosroKalbasi) September 22, 2022
Noura, in her first year at university, risks expulsion each time she takes to the streets. Omid, a musician who has already been arrested multiple times for performing at illegal co-ed gatherings, puts his livelihood on the line each time he joins a demonstration.
Depending on their age, people look to social media, the internet, or old-fashioned paper pamphlets to find out when and where demonstrations are planned, sources said. But more often than not, protests spring up spontaneously as young girls tear off their hijabs while walking home from school and nearby people flock to their side in support.
But while the demonstrations may be impromptu, people's protest preparation must be meticulous. Iranians heading to the streets follow a strict set of unwritten rules, sources said.
People never take their cellphones with them, not even if they're powered down or in airplane mode, out of fear that government officials use cellular data to track protest participants and uncover their identities; protesters wear a mask or face covering to hide their identities, and don black clothing to blend in and stay anonymous; people carry a small knife or something sharp in case they're attacked or forced to defend themselves from police; and protesters seek out demonstrations outside of their direct neighborhood to stay anonymous.
Insider's sources said authorities carry shotguns, firing metal pellets or plastic ammo meant to visibly mark and incapacitate demonstrators. Meanwhile, tear gas and beatings are all but ensured when authorities crash a demonstration. Members of the Basij — a feared paramilitary militia within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard — have led the government's crackdown efforts. They often ride in on motorcycles, dispersing protesters with force. Sometimes they patrol the crowds undercover, looking to clock leaders; sometimes they shoot to kill, sources said.
During a protest earlier this fall, Omid watched as an elderly man was pelted with plastic bullets. Believing he had been the intended target of the authorities' attack, Omid begged the bleeding man to let him accompany him to the hospital to be treated, but the man refused.
When security forces arrived to break up a separate protest, Raha was also injured. In the chaos of the stampede, she was pushed to the ground. When she finally made it home she took inventory of the damage: a massive bruise on her face and several broken teeth. She, too, opted not to seek medical attention.
"Generally people don't go to any hospital," Noura said. "It's like telling the authority you were at the protest."
Doctors in the country have launched their own protests against the regime, demanding the ability to treat wounded demonstrators without security forces present and patrolling for arrests. Meanwhile, Noura said she's seen medical students use social media to share tips for treating gunshot wounds at home.
Sources described an ominous uncertainty around what exactly happens to protesters who are unlucky enough to be arrested. Fears of rape, torture, and months-long imprisonment abound. Noura said she has a friend who was arrested and "disappeared" for weeks; Raha cited stories of family members being forced to give information or lie about their detained loved ones.
"This is even worse than dying, I think in some ways if you experience that," she said.
The government has failed to curb months of growing unrest
Street protests, public hair cuttings, organized strikes, and boycotts have grown in number and size in the ten weeks since Amini's death. The demonstrations have escalated into fervent calls for the overthrow of Iran's authoritarian regime and chants of "death to the dictator."
"This is a regime that is Islamic, not Iranian," Raha said.
Iran's government system includes a popularly-elected president, an active legislative branch, and an ostensibly independent judiciary. But it's the country's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who dictates policy in the Islamic Republic, bolstered by the religious state's privileged clerical class.
Iran Human Rights said this week that security forces have killed at least 488 people since the movement began, including at least 50 children, though the true number is likely higher. Thousands of Iranians have been arrested, more than 2,000 people have been charged, according to judicial authorities, and five people have been sentenced to death.
The country has a long history of activism, including in the four decades since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which itself was spurred by an uprising against the ruling Shah. Today's theocratic government has managed to quell previous bouts of unrest, including in 2009 when Iranians took to the street en masse following a disputed election, as well as several times in the last five years during sporadic middle-class protests over Iran's economy following debilitating US sanctions on oil.
Over the last 44 years, the Iranian people have tried "every solution" to win a modicum of moderation from the regime, to no avail, Raha said.
But Insider's Iranian sources all agreed — there's something different about this current movement, something relentless and rageful, blistering and final. The protests have infiltrated the lives of every person in Iran, men and women alike across suburbs and cities, they said.
"Now, it's even the religious people, the old people, poor and rich, they're all protesting. They've all suffered enough," Omid said. "They've all joined now and they want change."
The effects of the movement are already being felt across Iran
Sources' opinions differed on whether the global world is paying enough attention to Iran's cause — Noura said she has felt the Western world's support online, while Azadeh, who lives in the US, was less convinced. But they agreed, the movement has already brought about radical change in Iran itself.
For years, Raha sat quietly as the men in her life spoke with ease and bravado; women's opinions were not encouraged at family gatherings, she said. But since the protests began more than two-and-a-half months ago, she's suddenly found her male friends and colleagues not only letting women speak but actually listening to what they say.
"It's like my whole life is making sense in a way, the pieces of a puzzle coming back together. What I was suffering alone in my own personal life, I can see that it's a misery that many other women have been suffering as well," she said. "And I can share that burden with them, which is empowering in a way."
Azadeh, for one, can't wait for her next visit to Iran to see the changes with her own eyes.
The passion in the streets is undoubtedly exciting, sources said, but unnerving. No one knows what comes next. The Iranians said they hope the rest of the world will bolster their movement from beyond.
"We want them to know that we want to have an ordinary life," Omid said. "Nothing more than an ordinary life."
But as Iranians enter their third month of protesting with little sign of stopping, they said that even if they have to keep fighting alone, they will.
"It's so empowering to see all these women doing this. It's so empowering to see that we were ignored, and we were dismissed and limited for so long," Raha said. "And now we are united."
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