In the women’s rights protests that have been sweeping Iran for nearly three weeks, a new group of leaders has emerged: schoolgirls and younger women.
Wednesday marked the 19th day since protesters took to the streets of Iran, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini. Amini was arrested by the country’s “morality police” in Tehran for allegedly wearing her hijab loosely, contrary to the government’s strict religious dress code for women. Since then, Iranians have protested against the government and police, calling for women to be able to choose whether to wear the hijab.
Women have gone public without their hijabs, burned their hijabs and documented police brutality to share with people outside the country via virtual private networks due to the government’s shutdown of online communication. The protests resulted in dozens of deaths and more than 1,000 arrests. Iran’s state TV says the death toll could be as high as 41, while London-based Amnesty International says it has identified at least 52 victims.
With the start of the school year, the spotlight has turned to high schools and universities, where girls, teens and young adults continue the momentum of the movement. The videos show girls all over the country taking off their hijabs, shouting sloganssetting fire to their handkerchiefs, giving the middle finger to pictures of the country’s leaders and marching in the streets.
Last week, Iranian police trapped students in a car park at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology and imposed a violent crackdown, shooting women and arresting hundreds of protesters. The video shows students at the prestigious institution shouting “Death to Khamenei” from their windows – a reference to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has condemned the protests.
In the following days, the protests spread to other schools. Girls across Iran are chanting “Death to the dictator,” “Woman, life, freedom,” and “The mullahs must perish,” among other expressions. BBC reporter posted a video on Twitter schoolgirls removing their hijabs and shouting “Get over it” at a member of the Basij paramilitary volunteer force – part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – who came to speak to students at the school about the protests.
“A student would rather die than accept humiliation,” chanted students at Mashhad University of Medical Sciences earlier this month. Students at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University chanted: “Don’t call it a protest, it’s a revolution now.”
The average age of the newly arrested protesters is 15, said Ali Fadawi, the second-highest commander in the Revolutionary Guard. Most of the protesters are from younger generations, born after the 1979 revolution that resulted in Iran becoming an Islamic Republic. These Iranians have grown up knowing little but global isolation, Western sanctions and severe religious oppression.
Anger has grown with the recent disappearance and death of Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old girl who lived in Tehran with her mother. Nika was participating in the protests without a hijab on September 20 when her uncle said she disappeared. Ten days later, her family was asked to identify her body at a prison morgue.
Nika said in her last message to a friend that security forces were after her, the girl’s aunt Atash Shakarami told BBC Persian. Shakarami said authorities did not allow Nika’s family to see her body — only, briefly, her face. Security forces arrested the aunt after raiding her home, according to BBC Persian, threatening to kill her if anyone in the family took part in a protest.
Nika’s family took her body to her father’s hometown of Khorramabad on Sunday – her 17th birthday. The family did not hold a funeral after threats from the authorities, but the BBC reported that security forces “stole” Nika’s body from Khorramabad and buried her in the village of Veysian.
Relatives have not yet been told how Nika officially died, although Iranian activists outside the country claim she died in police custody. Prosecutor Dariush Shahoonvand denied wrongdoing by the authorities, according to the Hamshahri Daily.
The girl’s photo has since circulated on social media, with her name being used as a hashtag as activists did with Amini’s name.