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In Iran, women's resistance defies state clampdown a year after Mahsa Amini's death

Newspapers with a cover picture of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by Iran's morality police, are seen in Tehran, Sept. 18, 2022.
Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters
Newspapers with a cover picture of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by Iran's morality police, are seen in Tehran, Sept. 18, 2022.

When 28-year-old Khotan launched her women's clothing shop on Instagram recently, she decided to showcase collections of colorful, form-fitting crop tops and T-shirts rather than the compulsory coverings long mandated by Iranian authorities.

"We did at some point think about selling headscarves and cloaks," says the Tehran-based designer, who spoke to NPR on a fuzzy Zoom line giving only her first name for fear of being tracked down and detained for criticizing the government. "In the end, we decided to post Instagram stories showing our followers different ways they can fashion their scarves into tops or skirts instead."

It's been a year since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, also known by her Kurdish first name Jina, died in the custody of Iranian morality police. Her death set off some of the most sweeping anti-government protests Iran has experienced in decades. Government security forces violently cracked down on the uprising, killing more than 500 people, detaining some 22,000 and executing several detained protesters, according to human rights experts and activists.

Despite the clampdown, there are signs like Khotan's online shop that show the protest movement endures. Singers still produce protest songs, many women continue to let their hair flow freely in public spaces and activists still spread anti-government messages on social media. But the government's crackdown in recent weeks, ahead of anticipated unrest around the Sept. 16 anniversary of Amini's death, highlights just how hard it will be for that movement to survive.

While the legacy of the 2022 protests is an unfinished story still taking shape, here is a look at where things stand a year after Amini's death lit a match in one of the Middle East's most combustible countries.

Many Iranians are still defiant

Even though the morality police has resumed its patrols after a brief suspension, many women in cities big and small are continuing to forego the headscarf in public.

And it's not just women who are defying the state-mandated dress code. Some men have been wearing shorts in public — in violation of the country's dress code — as a show of solidarity.

"I once saw a couple of female officers had stopped some young girls for the way they were dressed and wanted to detain them, but these two guys who were wearing shorts spotted them and intervened," says Khotan, who no longer wears the headscarf. "They were able to help the girls break free and got tangled up with the officers instead."

Pop singer Mehdi Yarrahi released a song last month titled "Roosarito," which means "your headscarf" in Persian, calling on women to ditch their veils.

In March, a group of teenage girls appeared in a TikTok post — midriffs bare and hair unveiled — dancing to a Selena Gomez song.

Iran's government is clamping down

It didn't take long for authorities to arrest Yarrahi for his protest song or detain the teenage girls for their viral post. The girls were released only after reportedly recording a video apologizing for their actions.

From artists to activists to journalists, the government's crackdown has grown even more aggressive with the anniversary of the uprising approaching. Family members of protesters killed by security forces have been detained or intimidated into silence in recent weeks, according to Amnesty International.

In August, in one day alone, Human Rights Watch documented the arrests of at least a dozen women's rights defenders and political activists.

"The repression has entered a new phase," says Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. "Executions have more than doubled, the government is purging universities of professors and activist students, and it's going after [unveiled] women in restaurants and public spaces again."

Several university campuses turned into sites of intense clashes between student demonstrators and security forces last fall. Professors deemed sympathetic to the protest movement have said on social media that they've been either sacked or suspended from work.

Some believe the crackdown will intensify even further once the media's spotlight on the anniversary dims.

"I worry that the crackdown will become more systematic after they see how the anniversary goes," says 33-year-old Elnaz, a former protester who continues to flout mandatory headscarf rules and asks her last name not be used for fear of retribution. "Under such a scenario, it may become a lot harder to participate in acts of civil disobedience if all of a sudden the government starts depriving access to bank accounts, for example, or confiscating passports, or denying renewal of ID cards."

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's bet on clamping down as a means to stay in power is one that's paid off for other leaders in the region.

"Time and again it's been proven to Khamenei that when your population is rising up, you should never concede an inch because that's not going to ameliorate the pressure against you, that's going to embolden your adversaries," says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The most recent example was the Arab uprisings of 2011 — Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali in Tunisia — two autocrats who promised their populations that they would reform and a month later they were out of power. Who didn't promise reform? Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Iran's main client, and he's still standing 12 years later."

The U.S. is still engaging with Iran

The Biden administration struck a deal with Iran last month for the eventual release of five U.S. citizens who had been imprisoned in Iran.

The deal is contingent on the U.S. releasing several Iranian citizens it holds and granting Tehran access to $6 billion in oil revenues that have been frozen in banks in South Korea. The money was paid under a deal approved by the Trump administration that eventually got stuck there due to a shift in economic sanctions under President Biden.

Those funds are in the process of being transferred to Qatar, where U.S. officials insist they will be closely monitored to make sure they're used only for the import of food and medical supplies to Iran, items that are not limited by U.S. sanctions.

It's an agreement that's left many Iranians frustrated, particularly because the final stages of the deal are coinciding with the first anniversary of the uprising.

"In a way, the U.S. is stepping on the blood of all the people who've lost their lives this last year," says Khotan, adding that she's opposed to any talks with Iran around renewing a nuclear deal. "The international community needs to isolate the Islamic Republic more instead of just bowing to their demands."

A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Iranian morality police, in Tehran, Sept. 19, 2022.
Wana News Agency / via Reuters
via Reuters
A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Iranian morality police, in Tehran, Sept. 19, 2022.

Iranians haven't rallied around a single opposition leader

Not long after the uprisings started, as many prominent Iranian activists were being rounded up and imprisoned, a group of opposition figures outside Iran formed what initially appeared to be a united coalition. They included Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah of Iran, Masih Alinejad, a human rights activist who was the target of a 2021 international kidnapping plot, Hamed Esmaeilion, whose wife and daughter were killed in a Ukrainian passenger plane downed by the Islamic Republic in 2020, and several other prominent figures.

But that coalition fell apart almost as quickly as it came together due to political inexperience, divisions between coalition members and infighting among their supporters in the diaspora.

For those inside Iran, there was also a sense that these figures who'd spent years outside Iran couldn't fully represent them.

Protesters insist that having no leader whom the government could target was to their benefit and that it helped keep the unrest going. But the strength of leaderless movements is also its greatest weakness — there's no person or party poised to inspire and galvanize broad swaths of society in order to come up with an alternate system of governance.

"As we've seen in virtually every other country in the Middle East that's experienced popular unrest in which they've succeeded in bringing down dictators, it hasn't been a happy ending," says Sadjadpour, who advised the Iranian opposition coalition group during its short lifespan. "It's been the illiberal forces who take over. And frankly, that's one of the lessons of the 1979 revolution in Iran, that it's not enough to simply bring down an autocratic regime. You have to have an organized concrete vision for a more democratic, tolerant, accountable system."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.