‘We Have Broken the Wall of Fear’: Iranian protesters on what brings them back to the streets four weeks in

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Originally published in New York Magazine on Oct. 13, 2022.

Since mid-September, Iranians have taken to the streets to protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini (who primarily went by her Kurdish name, Zhina). After morality police stopped her for being “improperly” dressed, Amini was taken into police custody — only to emerge days later in a body bag. Thousands across the country reacted with fury and mourning, uniting under the banner of “Woman, Life, Freedom,” a Kurdish freedom slogan repurposed to demand women’s rights in Iran and an end to dictatorship under the current regime. Triggered by the violent enforcement of a government dress code that includes mandatory headscarves for women, the initial outcry has morphed into the largest protest movement Iran has seen in years.

Beginning in Saqqez, the town that Amini was from, protests spread to major cities like the capital, Tehran, and Mashhad and to ethnically diverse regions including Azerbaijani Turks, Arabs, Baluchis, and others. Despite a government crackdown by both police and a plainclothes paramilitary group called the Basij that has left more than 200 dead and many more in prison, the movement is now in its fourth week, and it can be found in high schools and on college campuses, at oil refineries, and in city streets across the country. Defiant young women have become visible as leaders and symbols of the protests — with the deaths of more girls and women like Hadis Najafiand Nika Shakarami at the hands of security forces further galvanizing public anger.

We spoke to people in Iran who have risked their lives at protests from Saqqez to Mashhad (a religious center and Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s birthplace), Tehran to Sistan and Baluchistan, a region that witnessed a massacre in late September by security forces. Out of concern for their safety, they spoke on condition of anonymity, and our conversations took place over voice notes and chats set to expire. They spoke about what it’s been like on the streets over the past month and what has kept them going. “Every time I leave my home, I hide my keys, I give my laptop to someone else, and I tell friends and family that I’m going out,” a teacher in Tehran said. “We all know anything could happen to us when we step out onto the street.”

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