From his tiny room in a major Europe city, 24-year-old Iranian student Kaveh* has spent most of the last fortnight following the protests in his home country and trying to spread information about them through the world. Ensuring that hashtags related to the protests stay visible on Twitter is now his main concern, keeping him awake and at his screen every night.
“How can I sleep when a revolution is blooming back home?” he asked.
Kaveh is not alone. For thousands of Iranian women and men now living outside the country, there is a feeling of helplessness that they cannot participate in the protests against the rule requiring women to wear hijabs in public.
That has driven them to organise protests in the cities in Europe and the US, and to police the internet to combat the fake narratives the Iranian government has been churning out as it tries to portray the movement as a conspiracy of the West.
Said Kaveh, fighting back tears: “This is not about me. This is about the women of Iran, who have been the punching bag of the despotic regime for decades.”
The spark for the demonstrations against the theocratic rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran came on September 16, when a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini died in custody in Tehran after being taken away by the gast-e-ersad or the “guidance police”, whose job is to enforce the hijab diktats on the streets of Iran.
The outrage was spontaneous, with women cutting across generations expressing their anger on the streets. As the protests spread, at least 41 people have been killed.
For Parvaneh, another Iranian living in Europe, the events in Tehran on September 16 sparked terrible memories of an evening some years ago when she was returning home with her head uncovered. In Iran, hijabs or veils are expected to be of a specific kind: black, of a particular texture. The Islamic Republic deems it a duty of women under Islam to wear them in the presence of others.
“A women officer of the guidance police walked up to me and asked me to get in the van,” she recalled.
Tales of police brutality passed down over the years had taught Parvaneh how to react in such a situation. One is expected to stay silent and show no sign of protest against the police. But this is no easy task, given the painful feeling of one’s dignity being violated. “In that moment, you have to control the overwhelming anger and disgust you feel inside,” she said. “You are photographed, sometimes your fingerprints taken as though you committed a heinous crime.”
She was given a lengthy sermon by the officer on the importance of the hijab. “I was asked to call my parents, who were expected to bring a hijab with them so that I could wear it before I stepped out,” Parvaneh said.
Any protestations, in the van or at the police station would get the male officers involved and could lead to violence in custody, of which Mahsa Amini was a victim.
The hijab rule is enforced through a complex set of fines and punishments. If the woman does not wear the hijab in the car, the driver is fined. “Cameras are everywhere, capturing photos of women who do not conform,” Parvaneh said. “We grew up with this surveillance. In schools, you will be beaten by the headmaster if you do not wear the hijab all the time.”
Most of the administrators heading the schools and universities are carefully selected by the regime, to ensure its rules are driven into Iranians at every moment.
A symbol of oppression
Twenty-four-year-old Vida still carries the scar on her left hand from the canning she got in school 15 years ago. “For those installed by the regime in these institutions, the hijab is not just about Islam,” she said. “It is the sadistic pleasure of keeping women subjugated and getting benefits from the government by showing the enforcement as a sign of loyalty.”
While the regime portrays the veil as a necessity under Islam, the protestors are clear that this is just a convenient strategy for the regime to keep Iranians in line. “Every time a woman is subjected to the ignominy of forced hijab, it is a statement by the regime that they own every bit of you,” Vida explained.
It is this oppression that the people have now galvanised against, the young Iranians said. “Shunning compulsory hijab is also, in a profound sense, the rejection of the regime,” said one student.
The aesthetics of the protest is a telling aspect of this fight. When the news of Amini’s death spread, some of the first protests were by women, young and of older generations, chopping their hair and posting those images on social media. “In some cultures in Iran, the chopping the hair is an act of mourning,” said Neda, a student in Europe.
It is noteworthy that the younger generation of men and women have been supported by the older generation, who had, in some sense, become accustomed to the ways of the regime. “Amini’s death was a shock to parents across Iran,” said Neda. “One day, it could be their daughter dead in a police station.”
The most stunning of the images were those of women burning their hijabs on the streets, flanked by men to keep the security forces from intervening. This act has been accompanied by what is the most important slogan of the protest, which when translated to English from Persian reads: “women, life, freedom.”
It is led by women, but for a society with freedoms, Neda points out: “Once the control over women is broken, the regime has no legs to stand on.”
One slogan heard on the streets has been, “Ey Khamenei Zahak, Mikeshimet be zire khak.” Khamenei, you are like Zahak. We will take you underground.
This chant references Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a character from the country’s national epic, the Shanameh. In the the 11th-century epic written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, Zahak is an evil king who makes a deal with the devil and raises an army. The deal meant he had to carry two snakes on his shoulders, which can only be fed with the blood of young people. For the protestors, Khameni is the modern-day Zahak .
“A slogan like this would have been unthinkable a few years ago,” said Kaveh.
For these students, the leadership of women and the centering of the hijab in the protests is a turning point in Iran’s history. The country has seen many protests over the past two decades, the 2009 agitations over the presidential election results being the most significant. But in all these protests, the problems of women remained invisible.
“We are making them hear our voice, by the strength of our spirit,” Neda said.
The young students also make it clear that they do not want to replace one despotic rule with another. There is awareness that in several countries across the world, including recently in India, Muslim women are denied the choice of wearing the hijab. “This protest is about choice – of bodily integrity of women,” Neda said.
However, she cautions that even as one fights for personal choice, the fact that hijab is used as a tool of oppression in the Islamic countries should not be forgotten. “I would just say this: wherever you are, do not side with the oppressor,” Neda said.
Grit amidst helplessness
These young men and women who are currently outside Iran consider their role in the protests to be of vital importance. Reports suggest that large swathes of Iran have been disconnected from the internet and social media platforms, a move by the regime to halt efforts by protestors to coordinate their actions and also to ward off international criticism.
“They want to turn the country into an information blackhole,” Kaveh said. “We want the world to know what is happening.”
Neda agreed. In a sense, Iranians outside the country have taken it upon themselves to be the voice of people who are unable to communicate to the world. “We have all been dreaming about this day for years,” she said. “We want to make it bigger.”
These young Iranians are also careful about protecting their identity while they fight for the cause. Many use VPNs to mask their locations on the internet. While they are hoping that the protests will lead to a democratic change in Iran, they are aware that the regime has withstood previous protests.
“We don’t want to put anyone in trouble, whether back home or here, even accidentally,” Kaveh said. President Ebrahim Raisi on Saturday warned of a major crackdown on the protestors if they do not leave the streets.
Vida ended the conversation with a metaphor. “Have you heard of the butterfly effect?” she asked. “It is said that a flap of its wings in one corner of the world could affect events somewhere else. I am that butterfly who wants to fly without a hijab.”
All names have been changed to protect identity.
Sruthisagar Yamunan is a doctoral candidate