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Understanding Iran's ongoing protests

Mass demonstrations have triggered the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic of Iran in decades.
Posted at 4:28 PM, Jan 27, 2023

Tears in the streets and cries for change. Mass demonstrations have triggered the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic of Iran in decades. And the government is countering the uproar with a strict crackdown on protesters. 

Tragedy in September sparked a moment activists are calling a 'revolution.'

22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran’s morality police — a unit that enforces Islamic Shariah law, including dress code. 

Iranian police released CCTV footage showing a woman collapsing on a chair. Officials say she died of illness. Amini’s family believes she was beaten to death for not wearing her hijab properly. 

"It really struck at the core of feelings that so many Iranians have had for so many decades about why these women who are their sisters, their mothers, their wives are forced and not given a choice to wear a hijab," said Jasmin Ramsey, the deputy director at the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Word of Amini’s death soon spread across social media. 

The Center for Human Rights in Iran shares videos from social media — typically from those wanting to remain anonymous. 

Scripps News cannot independently verify the videos.

Shared images and videos reveal crowds chanting "death to the dictator" shunning supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

"When you hear the chant 'death to the dictator.' That's what it means. It means we want an end to the dictatorship and the crisis of impunity that runs rampant in the Islamic Republic's government," Ramsey said. 

Women removed their hijabs in protest — burning them in the middle of streets. Others cut off their hair. 

The three word slogan "woman, life, freedom" sparked a unique moment that activists believe is different than protests of the past. 

"It's really, truly an expression of loss of any belief in the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic as a whole," Ramsey said. 

The uprising is compared to another watershed moment in the country’s history.  

Iran Executes 2 More Men Detained Amid Nationwide Protests

Iran Executes 2 More Men Detained Amid Nationwide Protests

This brings the total to four men that have been executed since the demonstrations began in September over the death of Mahsa Amini.


In 1979, millions of Iranian protesters demanded the removal of the Shah, the head of the Imperial State of Iran. A crackdown then led to larger demonstrations and a series of strikes that crippled Iran’s oil industry. 

The shah’s downfall led to the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who’d been in exile for over a decade, and the rise of the Islamic Republic built on Islamic principles. 

"The Islamic government has turned the hijab, which should be a choice, into a tool of political repression. It was used as a pillar of the 1979 Revolution. And forced all women and regardless of beliefs or religion to cover themselves when they're in public," Ramsey said. 

Iran’s government has faced several challenges in the decades since. In 2009, accusations of a rigged election led to unrest and violence. 10 years later, economic protests over fuel prices sparked calls for a regime change — yet neither resulted in reforms. 

And there are no signs the regime is working on new policies to try and win over the public. Iran’s leaders are calling the protests riots and say they’re being orchestrated by foreign enemies like the U.S. 

"Well, this was treason," said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. "No doubt it was treason. Responsible bodies address this in a stern and fair manner. They should do so."

"People can't come in to the streets and criticize state policies," Ramsey said. "They can't do it on social media. They risk imprisonment. They risk death. And so the government turns to the only tools it has violence and political repression."

Iranian authorities claim about 300 people have died. Human rights groups believe the death toll is over 500. 

At least four men have been executed for what the government said was "waging war against God" and nearly 20,000 others jailed. 

Protests have dwindled in size, but still continue in smaller regions despite the crackdown. 

"The fact that protests continue even as we speak in various ways and forms just speaks to the level of and strong desire for change among Iranians," Ramsey said.