The girls and women of Iran are just bitchin’ brave, flipping the bird at its Supreme Leader in a challenge to one of the most significant revolutions in modern history. Day after dangerous day, on open streets and in gated schools, in a flood of tweets and brazen videos, they have ridiculed a theocracy that deems itself the government of God. The average age of the protesters who have been arrested is just fifteen, the Revolutionary Guard’s deputy commander claimed last week. In the process, they have captured the world’s imagination; sympathy rallies have been held from London to Los Angeles, Sydney to Seoul, and Tokyo to Tunis.
Iran’s protests may well be the first time in history that women have been both the spark and engine for an attempted counter-revolution. “The role played by Iranian women right now seems very unprecedented,” Daniel Edelstein, a political scientist at Stanford and an expert on revolutions, told me. One of the few possible parallels was the role of Parisian female poissonières, or market workers, who stormed Versailles to prevent the king from turning against the National Assembly and crushing the nascent French Revolution, he said. In that case, however, “the women were seeking to prevent counter-revolution, not contributing to it.” During the Russian Revolution, bread riots led by women in Petrograd played a pivotal role in the tsarist empire’s collapse, Anne O’Donnell, a Russia historian at New York University, told me. But Iran’s protests have been unique because, she said, “this is not just an upheaval involving women, it is an upheaval about women and women’s freedom, and that makes it very special.”
Despite the dangers of arrest and death, Iranian women of disparate ethnicities have united in imaginative ways. The spark was the abrupt death of Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurd, after she was sent to a reëducation center for “inappropriate attire”—too much hair protruding from a head scarf—in Tehran. She ended up in a coma on a ventilator and died three days later, on September 16th. Protest chants about her death quickly evolved into calls to oust the regime: “Death to the Dictator,” and “Our disgrace is our incompetent leader,” and “We don’t want the Islamic Republic.” The slogan—and hashtag—of the protests became #WomanLifeFreedom.
On Wednesday, a video widely shared on social media captured schoolgirls in Tehran giggling at their audacity as they stomped on a framed photo of the two Supreme Leaders—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who have ruled since the 1979 Revolution against the Shah. They ripped up the photo and threw pieces joyously into the air. With their backs to the camera, the girls formed a line and pulled off their head scarves. “Don’t let fear in, we stand united,” they shouted. In multiple tweets, other girls were photographed—from the back to hide their identities—raising their middle fingers at pictures of the two Supreme Leaders. In a video last week from Karaj, schoolgirls gathered in front of a male official, ripped off their hijabs, and shouted, in unison, “Get lost.” They tossed empty water bottles as he fled through the school gates. In historic Isfahan last week, three young women unfurled a blanket-size banner over a highway bridge. It featured a painting of a woman with long black hair; it warned, “One of us will be next.” The girls then whipped off their head scarves and dashed away; the banner remained. In northwestern Sanandaj and southern Shiraz, young women have marched down streets—chanting anti-government slogans and removing their head scarves—and called for drivers to join them. Many cars could be heard honking in support.
Other girls and women have been killed or arrested during more than three weeks of the protests. Nika Shakarami, a young art student, was last heard from on September 20th, when she called a friend to say that security forces were chasing her down the street. Ten days later, her family was summoned to retrieve her body from a detention center in Tehran. Shakarami’s head appeared battered, her aunt told the BBC. The government claimed that she died after falling from a rooftop. She was buried—secretly, to avoid a new flashpoint for protests—on her seventeenth birthday. Funerals have long been pivotal to political mobilization in Iran. In Shiite Islam, deaths are commemorated again forty days later, often sparking emotive processions that turn into new protests—and new confrontations with security forces, followed by more deaths, and a prolonged cycle of demonstrations. Funerals generated the rhythm of Iran’s Revolution in 1978 that prompted the Shah to flee in 1979.
Five days after Mahsa Amini’s death, Hadis Najafi, a twentysomething TikTok enthusiast, recorded a video message during a protest. “I hope in a few years when I look back, I will be happy that everything has changed for the better,” she reportedly said. She was shot in the head hours later. Sarina Esmailzadeh, a sixteen-year-old video-blogger, recently posted, “I always think, Why did I have to be born in Iran?” She was reportedly beaten to death during a rally in Karaj; the government claimed that she, too, had jumped from a rooftop. The new deaths have fuelled more fury—and more funerals. To contain the demonstrations, the authorities have even targeted women who were once stalwarts of the Revolution, including Faezeh Hashemi, a former member of parliament and the daughter of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was arrested for “inciting riots.”
Women and girls are also cutting their long locks—and posting videos of it on social media—as acts of defiance. “Women cutting their hair is an ancient Persian tradition also found in the “The Shahnameh,” the Iranian-born essayist Shara Atashi tweeted, referring to a literary masterpiece written a millennium ago by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. “The moment we have been waiting for has come. Politics fuelled by poetry.” The actresses Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche posted photos cutting their hair in support of Iran’s women. On Instagram, Angelina Jolie urged Iran’s women to carry on. “Respect to the brave, defiant, fearless women of Iran,” she wrote. “All those who have survived and resisted for decades, those taking to the streets today, and Masha Amini and all young Iranians like her.” Balenciaga, the fashion house, tweeted, “We stand with all Iranian women, in memory of Mahsa” over a stark black-and-white image that said “Woman Life Freedom” in English and Farsi.
Iran’s revolutionaries planted the seeds of their own unravelling. After the Revolution, higher education skyrocketed because conservative families thought an Islamic system protected the morality of girls from exposure to Western or modernizing mores. Female literacy soared—from below thirty per cent in 1976—to eighty per cent four decades later. For more than a decade now, the majority of Iran’s university students have been female, though they still make up less than twenty per cent of the labor force.
“We are witnessing a younger generation of women who are educated and connected to the world,” Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian American and former director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East program, told me. Women are also more prominent and more politically active, holding a Vice-Presidency and several seats in parliament. Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2003, for defending human-rights activists in court, while Samira Makhmalbaf was the youngest director (at seventeen) to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival. In 2016, I spoke with Khomeini’s granddaughter, Zahra Eshraghi, a women’s-rights activist married to the brother of the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami. Barred from running for parliament because of her reformist views, she complained that the government suffered from delusions that it could create uniform thinking and eliminate challengers. Esfandiari reflected, “Iranian women have been waiting for four decades for this moment when they could take matters into their own hands.” In 2017, young women launched a white-scarf movement. They appeared on streets—often individually—removed their scarves and attached them to sticks, which they waved in public. Several were tried and sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison. So were their female lawyers, including Nasrin Sotoudeh.
The protests challenge two core themes of the 1979 Revolution: the hijab reflects its ideology and moral code, and the refusal to recognize the United States has been a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. Abandoning either source of identity would reflect the Revolution’s failure. The protests erupted at a time of looming transition. Khamenei, who turned eighty-three this summer, underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 2014. Last week, a senior European diplomat told me that Khamenei is battling cancer again. So the stakes—at a fragile time for the Revolution’s future—are enormous.
So far, the regime has flailed in its response. The hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi called. Amini’s family to express his condolences and, last week, publicly admitted “weaknesses and shortcomings” in the Islamic Republic. But he appealed for unity “to render our enemy hopeless.” The regime has also deployed security forces on university campuses and mobilized its own counter-demonstrations of women enveloped in black chadors. But nothing has so far stemmed the popular outrage. On Saturday, Raisi was heckled by students during a speech at Tehran’s Alzahra University for women. “We don’t want a corrupt establishment,” they chanted. “We don’t want a murderer as guest. . . . Get lost.” (Raisi was on a four-man death commission that sentenced some five thousand political prisoners to death in 1988.) On Saturday, hackers also interrupted a speech by Khamenei on state television with calls for his death and pictures of young women killed in the protests. The chant “woman, life, freedom” was heard in the background.
Earlier protests in Iran fizzled out over time. The historic Green Movement, when millions turned out in all thirty-one provinces to condemn the fraudulent Presidential election in 2009, collapsed after seven months. Hundreds were convicted in Stalinesque mass trials. The regime may still have enough cruel tools and Storm Troopers to contain the protests. But utopian ideologies tend to collapse when a confluence of factors—political alienation, economic woes, societal fury, and nature’s disasters—coincide. In 2021, the majority of Iranians didn’t bother to vote in the Presidential election that put Raisi in power. U.S. sanctions have tanked Tehran’s currency and limited oil exports, albeit not enough, so far, to cripple the regime. Iran was also an early epicenter of the pandemic. In the first year, almost sixty thousand people died. And now the girls (backed by many men, too) have found their voices—and are using them. They may not prevail, but the original revolutionaries face an existential threat. For Iran, #WomanLifeFreedom is a turning point.