Image of an Iranian woman next to two photos of violent protests

Mahsa Amini, the young Iranian who died in police custody (left); Huge protests in Tehran. ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo (Amini); AFP via Getty Images (protest); AP Images (street)

‘Nothing to Lose’

Young Iranians, fed up with religious restrictions and economic hardship, are leading fierce new protests against their leaders

The 22-year-old woman emerged from the Tehran subway, her dark hair covered with a black head scarf and her body obscured by loose clothing. That’s when Iran’s morality police spotted her. By their standards, Mahsa Amini was improperly dressed, which could mean something as simple as a wisp of hair protruding from her head scarf.

The morality police, who enforce the country’s conservative Islamic dress code and behavior rules, put her in a van and drove her away to a detention center, where she was to undergo re-education. Three days later, on September 16, she was dead.

Amini’s death has sparked the most significant outpouring of anger and defiance that Iran has seen since the 1979 revolution that transformed it into an Islamic republic. The protests have thrust Iran into turmoil that has cut across ethnic and social divides. In dozens of cities, protesters have chanted “Women, life, and freedom!” and “Death to the dictator!”—a reference to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The 22-year-old woman walked out of the Tehran subway. A black head scarf covered her dark hair, and loose clothing draped over her body. That’s when Iran’s morality police spotted her. By their standards, Mahsa Amini was improperly dressed. That could mean something as simple as a wisp of hair peeking out from her head scarf.

The morality police enforce the country’s strict Islamic dress code and behavior rules. They put her in a van and drove her away to a detention center. She was to undergo re-education. Three days later, on September 16, she was dead.

Amini’s death has sparked the most striking outpouring of anger and defiance that Iran has seen since the 1979 revolution that transformed it into an Islamic republic. The protests have thrust Iran into an uproar that has cut across ethnic and social divides. In dozens of cities, protesters have chanted “Women, life, and freedom!” and “Death to the dictator!” (a reference to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).

The real power in Iran is held by religious leaders who are resistant to reform.

Protesters are furious not only over the treatment of women under the country’s conservative clerical rulers, but also over a host of other issues, including an economy crippled by years of sanctions, the pandemic, widespread corruption, and repression.

“The anger isn’t over just Mahsa’s death, but that she should have never been arrested in the first place,” says Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer who has campaigned for Iranian women’s rights for two decades.

Protesters are enraged by the treatment of women under the country’s current rulers. They also are angry about many other issues, including an economy crippled by years of sanctions, the pandemic, widespread corruption, and repression.

“The anger isn’t over just Mahsa’s death, but that she should have never been arrested in the first place,” says Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer who has campaigned for Iranian women’s rights for two decades.

Getty Images

A protest in Tehran, Iran’s capital, where young women burned head scarves in defiance

“Because they have nothing to lose,” she adds, “they are standing up and saying, ‘Enough of this. I am willing to die to have a life worth living.’”

The uprising has united rich Iranians from high-rise apartments with struggling working-class bazaar vendors, as well as Kurds, Turks, and other ethnic minorities. The diversity of the protesters reflects the breadth of Iranians’ grievances, analysts say, from a sickly economy and in-your-face corruption to political repression and social restrictions—frustrations Iran’s leaders have repeatedly tried, and failed, to quash.

“Because they have nothing to lose,” she adds, “they are standing up and saying, ‘Enough of this. I am willing to die to have a life worth living.’”

The uprising has united rich Iranians from high-rise apartments with struggling working-class bazaar vendors. It has also brought together Kurds, Turks, and other ethnic minorities. The diversity of the protesters reflects the wide range of Iranians’ complaints, analysts say, from a sickly economy and in-your-face corruption to political repression and social restrictions. Iran’s leaders have repeatedly tried and failed to crush these frustrations.

Jim McMahon

Testing Limits, Demanding Freedoms

Information about the protests remains partial at best. Internet access continues to be disrupted or fully blocked, especially on widely used messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram, making it difficult for Iranians to communicate with each other or to share updates with the outside world.

But witnesses say the demonstrations, which started in Iran’s capital, Tehran, and spread to at least 80 cities, are far more intense than previous ones. (Protests broke out over fraudulent elections in 2009, over economic mismanagement in 2017, and fuel price hikes in 2019. Authorities brutally crushed those uprisings, killing hundreds of protesters.) In the current crackdown, security forces have fired on peaceful protesters with bullets and water cannons and beaten them with batons, killing more than 200 people, including 28 children, as of mid-October, according to estimates from human rights groups. In one particularly deadly crackdown in southeastern Iran, authorities fired into a large crowd gathered for Friday prayers, killing dozens of people, because some had begun chanting antigovernment slogans.

Information about the protests remains partial at best. Internet access continues to be disrupted or fully blocked, especially on widely used messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram. That’s made it hard for Iranians to talk with each other or to share updates with the outside world.

The demonstrations started in Iran’s capital, Tehran. Then they spread to at least 80 cities. Witnesses say that the protests are far more intense than previous ones. (Protests broke out over disputed elections in 2009, over economic corruption in 2017, and fuel price hikes in 2019. Authorities brutally crushed those uprisings, killing hundreds of protesters.) In the current crackdown, security forces have fired on peaceful protesters. They’ve used bullets and water cannons and beaten them with batons. More than 200 people have been killed, including 28 children, as of mid-October, according to estimates from human rights groups. In one particularly deadly crackdown in southeastern Iran, authorities fired into a large crowd gathered for Friday prayers. Dozens were killed after some had begun chanting antigovernment slogans.

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP Images

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Frustration has been brewing in Iran for decades. It’s been 43 years since Iran’s revolution, in which radical Shiite Muslims overthrew Iran’s monarchy and imposed strict Islamic rule on what had been a Western-leaning country.

Iran does hold elections; however, real power is wielded not by the elected parliament or the president but by the country’s religious leaders, who try to enforce rigid social rules. Mingling between men and women is officially restricted, women must veil themselves in public, and alcohol is banned.

Frustration has been brewing in Iran for decades. It’s been 43 years since Iran’s revolution. That’s when radical Shiite Muslims overthrew Iran’s monarchy. They established strict Islamic rule in what had been a Western-leaning country.

Iran does hold elections for parliament and president. But the country’s religious leaders hold the real power. They try to enforce strict social rules. Mingling between men and women isn’t allowed, women must cover themselves in public, and alcohol is banned.

Young Iranians have repeatedly tested the limits of their conservative society and demanded more freedoms. Online, they’ve been able to access the wider world: They watch leaked videos of appalling conditions in Iranian prisons. They see viral photos of the luxurious lives that senior officials’ children are leading abroad while the economy collapses at home. They mock Iran’s supreme religious leader in anonymous comments. And young women post Instagram selfies—no head scarf, just hair—and squeal over the Korean boy band BTS.

Internationally, Iran has remained a pariah state, largely because of its clandestine nuclear program, whose goal the international community suspects is to make nuclear weapons. That has led to years of economic sanctions. In 2015, Iran made a deal with the United States to halt its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions (see “The Nuclear Deal,” below). But in 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement and reimposed sanctions, hoping that would force Iran to accept a tougher nuclear deal.

Young Iranians have repeatedly tested the limits of their rigid society and demanded more freedom. Online, they’ve been able to access the wider world: They watch leaked videos of shocking conditions in Iranian prisons. They see viral photos of the plush lives that senior officials’ children lead abroad while the economy crumbles at home. They mock Iran’s supreme religious leader in anonymous comments. And young women post Instagram selfies with their hair uncovered, and they squeal over the Korean boy band BTS.

Internationally, Iran has remained a pariah state. That’s largely because of its secret nuclear program, whose goal the international community suspects is to make nuclear weapons. That has led to years of economic sanctions. In 2015, Iran made a deal with the United States to halt its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions (see “The Nuclear Deal,” below). But in 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement and put sanctions back in place. He had hoped that doing so would force Iran to accept a tougher nuclear deal.

Iranians are angry about social restrictions, political repression, and a bad economy.

The sanctions, combined with longtime corruption and government mismanagement, have created an economic crisis for Iranians. Since 2018, many prices have more than doubled, living standards have declined, and poverty has spread, especially in rural areas

Iranians are also dealing with long-simmering political frustrations. In last year’s presidential election, the clerics who hold behind-the-scenes power in Iran disqualified nearly every candidate except for a hard-liner named Ebrahim Raisi. Since becoming president, Raisi has set out to reverse the legacy of his reformist predecessor, Hassan Rouhani.

The sanctions, combined with longtime corruption and government failings, have created an economic crisis for Iranians. Since 2018, many prices have more than doubled, living standards have declined, and poverty has spread, especially in rural areas.

Iranians are also dealing with long-simmering political frustrations. In last year’s presidential election, the clerics who hold behind-the-scenes power in Iran ruled out nearly every candidate except for a hard-liner named Ebrahim Raisi. Since becoming president, Raisi has set out to reverse the legacy of the reformist leader who came before him, Hassan Rouhani.

Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images, Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A morality police officer talks to young women in Tehran.

Restrictions on Women

The head scarf, known as the hijab, is an especially inflammatory issue: The law requiring women to wear loose robes and cover their hair in public has been a pillar of the ruling theocracy and a lightning rod for reform-minded Iranians for decades.

When Rouhani was president, from 2013 to 2021, the morality police were discouraged from enforcing Iran’s often draconian laws against women, particularly the requirement that they wear the hijab in public in the proper fashion, entirely covering their hair. That led to young women showing more hair. Unmarried men and women were allowed to mingle in public in some places.

The head scarf, known as the hijab, is a hot-button issue. The law requiring women to wear loose robes and cover their hair in public has been a pillar of the ruling theocracy and a lightning rod for reform-minded Iranians for decades.

Rouhani was president from 2013 to 2021. During his time in office, the morality police were discouraged from enforcing Iran’s often strict laws against women, particularly the rule that they wear the hijab in public in the proper fashion, entirely covering their hair. That led to young women showing more hair. Unmarried men and women were allowed to mingle in public in some places.

Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Men and women together in public in Tehran

But the country’s conservative leadership saw the slippage in standards as a threat to the republic’s theocratic foundations. In July, Raisi called for the conservative dress laws to be implemented “in full.” Iran’s morality police, which patrols public areas for infringements of Islamic rules, stepped up enforcement of hijab standards, and authorities closed down three coffee shops in central Qum over the summer for having bareheaded customers. This crackdown seems to be what prompted Mahsa Amini’s detention.

The authorities have denied using violence on Amini. They say she suffered from an underlying health condition, which her family has disputed, and that she had a heart attack in custody. But to many Iranians, photos of her lying on a hospital bed, her face bloodied, told a different story.

But the country’s leaders saw the slippage in standards as a threat to the republic’s religious roots. In July, Raisi called for the strict dress laws to be carried out “in full.” Iran’s morality police patrol public areas, looking for anyone breaking Islamic rules. Authorities have gotten tougher on enforcing hijab standards. They also closed down three coffee shops in central Qum over the summer for having bareheaded customers. This crackdown seems to be what led to Mahsa Amini’s detention.

The authorities have denied using violence on Amini. They say she suffered from an underlying health condition. Her family has disputed that claim. The authorities also say that Amini had a heart attack in custody. But to many Iranians, the photos of her lying on a hospital bed with her face bloodied told a different story.

Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

International condemnation: Protesters in Istanbul, Türkiye (Turkey), march holding a photo of Mahsa Amini.

‘Fed Up With the Hypocrisy’

Yasi, a 20-year-old from Tehran, is the first woman in her immediate family to reject wearing the hijab. When the protests broke out after Amini’s death, Yasi ran into the streets of Tehran to join them.

“I keep thinking Mahsa could be me; it could be my friends, my cousins,” she says. “You don’t know what they will do to you.”

In several of the protest videos flying across social media, women rip off their head scarves and burn them in street bonfires. In one, young women danced bareheaded in front of the riot police.

The backlash to Amini’s death has been so strong that religiously conservative Iranians have spoken up alongside liberal ones. Yasi’s mother, Minoo, seeing her daughter in Amini, signed an online petition by religious women calling for the abolition of the morality police and the repeal of the hijab mandate. Minoo says she wears the head scarf willingly, but the choice should be hers, not the government’s.

“We can’t impose what we think on one another,” she says. “I’m religious, but I’m fed up with the hypocrisy and lies of this regime treating us ordinary people like dirt.”

On several nights, Minoo has driven her daughter and her daughter’s friends to various protests around Tehran.

Yasi, a 20-year-old from Tehran, is the first woman in her immediate family to reject wearing the hijab. When the protests broke out after Amini’s death, Yasi ran into the streets of Tehran to join them.

“I keep thinking Mahsa could be me; it could be my friends, my cousins,” she says. “You don’t know what they will do to you.”

In several of the protest videos flying across social media, women rip off their head scarves and burn them in street bonfires. In one, young women danced bareheaded in front of the riot police.

The backlash to Amini’s death has been strong. It’s caused religiously conservative Iranians to speak up alongside liberal ones. Yasi’s mother, Minoo, sees her daughter in Amini. She signed an online petition by religious women calling for the end of the morality police and the hijab rule. Minoo says she wears the head scarf willingly, but the choice should be hers, not the government’s.

“We can’t impose what we think on one another,” she says. “I’m religious, but I’m fed up with the hypocrisy and lies of this regime treating us ordinary people like dirt.”

On several nights, Minoo has driven her daughter and her daughter’s friends to various protests around Tehran.

Young Iranians ‘feel they have nothing to lose, they have no hope for the future.’

Avenues for pushback have dwindled in recent years, leaving Iranians with only protest as a means of demanding change. Raisi opposes returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. that had put limits on Iranian nuclear development in exchange for lifting sanctions and economic openness. His election, combined with the worsening economy, left Iranians who craved better opportunities, more social freedoms, and closer ties with the rest of the world in despair.

“The reason the younger generation is taking this kind of risk is because they feel they have nothing to lose, they have no hope for the future,” says Ali Vaez, Iran director for the International Crisis Group, based in Brussels, Belgium.

By continually blocking reforms, the country’s leadership has “created a situation where people no longer believe that the system is reformable,” he adds. “I think people would be willing to tolerate a milder version of the Islamic Republic, but [Iran’s leaders have] just entrenched their positions and have created this situation. It’s turned Iran into a tinderbox.”

Avenues for pushback have decreased in recent years. As a result, Iranians can only demand change through protest. Many crave better opportunities, more social freedoms, and closer ties with the rest of the world. The 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. put limits on Iranian nuclear development in exchange for lifting sanctions and economic openness. Raisi opposes returning to it. His election, combined with the worsening economy, has left many Iranians in despair.

“The reason the younger generation is taking this kind of risk is because they feel they have nothing to lose, they have no hope for the future,” says Ali Vaez, Iran director for the International Crisis Group, based in Brussels, Belgium.

By continually blocking reforms, the country’s leadership has “created a situation where people no longer believe that the system is reformable,” he adds. “I think people would be willing to tolerate a milder version of the Islamic Republic, but [Iran’s leaders have] just entrenched their positions and have created this situation. It’s turned Iran into a tinderbox.”

Based on reporting by Vivian Yee and Farnaz Fassihi of The New York Times.

Based on reporting by Vivian Yee and Farnaz Fassihi of The New York Times.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

Iranian scientists at a nuclear facility, 2005

THE NUCLEAR DEAL

The U.S. is trying to revive the controversial agreement

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have focused in recent years on fears that Iran was trying to build nuclear weapons in defiance of international agreements. So the U.S. and its allies placed increasingly tough economic sanctions on Iran to punish it and to try to lure it into negotiations.

Those efforts culminated in a deal in 2015: Iran agreed to strict limits on its nuclear program and international monitoring in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But some thought the agreement wasn’t tough enough on Iran. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, imposing even tougher sanctions and making it much harder for Iran to sell its oil, which is critical to Iran’s economy.

Since taking office, President Biden has been working with allies to negotiate a return to the 2015 deal, but Iran’s current hard-line government has been resistant, and talks are dragging on.

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have focused in recent years on fears that Iran was trying to build nuclear weapons in defiance of international agreements. So the U.S. and its allies placed increasingly tough economic sanctions on Iran to punish it and to try to lure it into negotiations.

Those efforts culminated in a deal in 2015: Iran agreed to strict limits on its nuclear program and international monitoring in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But some thought the agreement wasn’t tough enough on Iran. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, imposing even tougher sanctions and making it much harder for Iran to sell its oil, which is critical to Iran’s economy.

Since taking office, President Biden has been working with allies to negotiate a return to the 2015 deal, but Iran’s current hard-line government has been resistant, and talks are dragging on.

IRAN At a Glance

POPULATION