Anti-government protests have entered their third week in Iran despite severe internet restrictions and a heavy crackdown that rights groups say has killed dozens.
Videos published on social media appeared to show protests in cities across Iran on Friday night and Saturday, with students from several universities shouting chants such as “Death to the Dictator!”
Other forms of civil disobedience, such as residents singing on rooftops, drivers honking their horns in unison, and public figures standing up for protesters, have emerged.
On Saturday, demonstrations were taking place around the world, including in Rome, London, Frankfurt and Seoul, in solidarity.
The protests were sparked by the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained for failing to properly cover her hair. She later died in the custody of the Iranian vice squad.
While it is difficult to gauge the scale of the protests given Iran’s severe internet restrictions, Hadi Ghaemi, director of the Center for Human Rights in Iranan independent organization based in New York, said the protests “certainly continue”.
He spoke of a “bloodbath” on Friday in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan, where at least 19 people were reportedly killed after a clash between protesters and police. He said the protests were directly linked to Amini and the rape of a 15-year-old girl by a police commander.
As in the early days of the protests, recent videos show that many protesters are women.
They led and marched in the protests and, in defiance of the Islamic regime’s strict moral laws, cut their hair in public and danced with their exposed locks fluttering.
“We continue to receive many videos that show women are fearless,” said Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist who fled Iran in 2009 and is now based in New York. “They walk without fear towards the security forces. It seems that this time people have made up their minds. They say enough is enough, we are fed up with the Islamic Republic and we want to get rid of it.”
These days, Alinejad spends day and night posting images of the protests and other acts of defiance on social media for her millions of followers. The Iranian regime has made it a crime for Iranians to send it videos. It also made her a target, even in New York, where she spoke to CBS News from an FBI hideout. But she said she was not afraid.
“My real leaders are those women and men inside Iran,” she said. “I’m not doing anything, just using my freedom in the United States, echoing their voice.”
In recent years, Iranian women have taken part in other nationwide protests. But this time the spark was the death of a woman, and a journalist – Niloufar Hamedi of the daily Shargh – broke the story. She was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran.
Hamedi is one of at least 19 journalists, including seven women, detained across the country since the protests began, according to Reporters Without Borders. (The Center for Human Rights in Iran puts the figure at 25 or more.)
“This is the first time that large numbers of women, side by side with men, have burned their headscarves,” said Alinjead, who runs an online campaign called “My Stealthy Freedom,” sharing images of girls and of women in Iran flouting the rules of the hijab. “[The hijab] is the main pillar of the Islamic Republic, so they strongly believe that by burning headscarves they are actually undermining the regime.”
In the decades leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, street women in Iran wore both the hijab and the latest Western fashions. But soon after the revolution, the new Islamic regime decreed that women – and girls from an early age – had to cover their hair and body in public. Hardliners proclaimed the hijab would protect women’s honor, but for many protesters it is a symbol of oppression.
The women who demonstrated want to have the choice whether or not to wear the hijab, according to Azadeh Pourzand, co-founder of the American foundation Siamak Pourzand, which promotes freedom of expression in Iran.
“It’s basically about women feeling humiliated and women feeling pressured to do something that they may or may not want to do,” said Pourzand, who is also a PhD student at the University of London and focuses on women’s activism in Iran.
While Iranian women have pushed for legal reforms for years, very little has been achieved, she said. Women are present in society, especially in higher education, but family and employment laws remain deeply discriminatory against women, as do norms and practices, she said. .
Still, Pourzand pointed out that the protests have united Iranians of different ages, ethnicities and cities. The demonstrators are not only demanding women’s rights, but they are also protesting against political repression, corruption, Iran’s struggling economy and a climate crisis resulting from mismanagement.
Alinejad wants Western countries to cut ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran and “recognize…the Iranian uprising”.
Young Iranians protesting in the streets believe that “history will judge those democratic countries that can help us but have decided to help our murderers,” she said, adding: “They say, … ‘We are willing to die for Iran’s future, to have a better country to live in.'”
A teacher who spoke to CBS News on the condition that her name not be used said she had taken her daughter to protests twice in Tehran.
“For 43 years we lived and slept in fear, so much so that we got used to it,” she said. “But now we are no longer afraid.”
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