By: Rana Nejad
Edited By: Aakrith Harikumar
September 16th marked one year since the tragic passing of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish Iranian woman who was arrested, and later died while in police custody for improperly wearing her hijab. Amini’s death ignited a series of protests that shook Iran and its authoritarian government for several months. This unrest posed the most significant threat to the government’s authority in several years.
The protests swept across the nation, transitioning from an initial focus on women’s rights to a broader demand for the overthrow of the entire Iranian regime. But before videos emerged of protesters yelling “death to the dictator,” Iranians and supporters around the world were chanting “women, life, freedom”. These demonstrations resulted in harsh crackdowns and frequent internet shutdowns imposed by the Iranian authorities, as well as thousands of arrests and several executions.
Nevertheless, the Islamic regime still stands in Iran one year later. So, what has changed?
SAIS Professor Narges Bajoghli explains how “the biggest change that has occurred in Iran is that women no longer comply with mandatory hijab laws en masse in major urban centers.” Indeed, images and footage from cafes and streets in Tehran depict several women confidently moving around with their hair exposed—a sight that would be rare just months prior. Bajoghli describes how the state is “still attempting to coerce women to abide by their laws on this issue, but so far they have failed in their attempts.” Some of these laws have included prohibiting women without headscarves from using public transportation and government directives warning of business closures for serving women without head coverings. Despite this, some businesses defy these orders as a show of solidarity with the women of Iran.
The presence of morality police significantly diminished from the streets following Amini’s death while in their custody. However, as the protests waned, they resumed their presence on the streets, and surveillance cameras were deployed to detect and punish women who were not wearing veils.
The Role of the Media
Similar to other socio-political movements, the media’s influence has been substantial both during the protests and in their aftermath. Media organizations such as London-based Iran International have played a pivotal role in energizing the opposition movement. This involvement has prompted several Iranian officials to characterize it as an external effort originating from Western and Saudi influences aimed at destabilizing the regime.
“Iran International has played a similar role to the protests as Fox News did during the Trump years,” says Professor Vali Nasr. He goes on to mention that Iran International‘s coverage of the protests created the impression that the regime’s downfall was “imminent,” leading many Western observers to anticipate the complete disintegration of the Islamic regime.
A Legitimacy Battle
The most significant transformation has been the erosion of the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of numerous Iranians. This shift is especially evident as many have overcome their fear of repercussions for not strictly adhering to the legal dress code, inspired by the courageous women who confidently roam the streets dressed as they please.
Iranian authorities have attributed the unrest to “foreign adversaries,” intensifying the consequences for protestors under threat of arrest. However, the regime’s stringent actions risk deepening the divide between the clerical leadership and everyday Iranians who are growing more disheartened due to an economy strained by sanctions and mismanagement, a potential catalyst for future unrest.
“The protests have sparked a political awakening among numerous Iranians,” says Nasr, adding that the eventual outcome of this awakening may reveal itself over time.