Mahsa Amini, also known as Jina, was walking out of a subway station in Tehran on September 16 when she was stopped by the government’s so-called morality police. Amini, a 22-year-old who planned to begin university this fall, was wearing a headscarf—something that Iran has forced women to do since the early 1980s—but police claimed she had it on “inappropriately.” After her arrest, witnesses say the police beat her on the way to a remedial class on how to dress. She collapsed at the class, spent three days in a coma, and then died. (The government blamed her death on a heart condition.)
As a photo of her, comatose in the hospital bed, spread on social media—juxtaposed with earlier images of her healthy at home—protests started almost immediately, aimed at Iran’s treatment of women and calling for an end to the country’s brutal regime. People of all ages continue to demonstrate on the streets in dozens of cities, but Gen Z (locally known as the 1380s generation, based on the Iranian calendar) is especially defiant. Young women have torn off their hijabs and other head coverings and burned them, or shared videos of themselves criticizing the government, even though it means risking their lives. The Iran Human Rights Group, based in Norway, estimates that 76 people had been killed in protests as of Monday.
They’re “frustrated/angry with the status quo, and not afraid to say it online,” Holly Dagres, an Iranian-American researcher at the Atlantic Council who has been studying young Iranians for the last year, wrote on Twitter.
Like Gen Zers around the world, they’ve grown up online and seen what’s possible elsewhere. And most don’t identify with the geriatric, ultraconservative men who rule the country. A 20-year-old woman shot by security forces in one of the protests after Amini’s death was an avid TikToker, like many of her peers. “She looked like any other TikToker that you’d see anywhere else,” says Gissou Nia, a lawyer at the Atlantic Council, who works with human rights victims from Iran. “It’s a powerful visual symbol when you contrast the image of these young women taking off their mandatory hijabs and celebrating life, and compare that to the images of the ruling, unelected establishment who are all 70-plus. It’s just a very stark visual contrast.”
Women have protested the hijab since the Islamic Republic first made it mandatory, sometimes by simply refusing to wear it or letting it fall to their shoulders, though that has always been a dangerous choice. Shahrzad Changalvaee, an artist and activist in her thirties who now lives in New York, says that her first near encounter with the “hijab police” happened before she was born: Her pregnant mother, who often decided not to wear a hijab, went to a market without one. Later that day, on the radio, she heard that morality officers had been at the market and beaten other women. “She started thinking, ‘Okay, now I’m a mother, and if I continue this, I’m going to put my child in danger,’” Changalvaee says.
In more recent years, protests have become more brazen. In 2017, a young woman named Vida Movahed climbed up on a utility box in Tehran, took off her hijab, and waved it in front of a crowd. And just as women (and men) of all ages have joined the current protests, the bravery of the youngest protesters has inspired those who are older. “This generation is different from my generation,” a 51-year-old protester who was arrested told the BBC.
Other protests have become more frequent in Iran in the past decade, sometimes about water shortages or workers not getting paid. “This one is just different in that the demand was for social change. . . . No commentators can dismiss this as just being due to economic concerns or something like that,” says Nia. “This is squarely about the Republic of Iran’s discriminatory legal framework.” Protesters have also been even more critical of the government than in the past, shouting, “death to the dictator.” “The people have now very clearly stated that they don’t want the Islamic Republic,” she says. “I think that was often a taboo. And so once you say that, it’s hard to go back.”
Social media has also made other generations, including millennials, and people of all social classes, more critical of the regime, says Changalvaee, who moved to the U.S. in 2013 to attend art school at Yale. In the past, she thought reform might be possible. Being on Twitter changed that, as she realized how deeply ingrained the problems were in the current power structure. “I don’t think the regime is reformable at all,” she says. “It is so corrupt that it needs to go down. There’s no way that it can be corrected.”
As the government cracks down on the current protests, and makes it harder to access the internet, it isn’t clear what will happen. Changalvaee says the international community should target sanctions against the leaders and morality police, rather than impoverished Iranians, and find ways to help Iranians get internet access. (The U.S. recently relaxed sanctions so Starlink could bring satellite internet to Iran, though installing the equipment in the face of a hostile government is a logistical challenge.) Nia says it’s critical that the United Nations investigate the deaths of the dozens of protesters who have been killed and hold those responsible accountable. And, she says, it’s important that the world keeps paying attention.
“I did see that lots of influencers on Instagram [outside of Iran] are sharing this news. And that was a first,” says Nia. “I’ve never seen such a broad sharing of news about what’s happening internally in Iran with respect to human rights violations, and I think that’s critical. I hope that that attention keeps up. Because when representative governments think that people care about an issue, they tend to prioritize it.”