Want to better understand the terror of Iran’s despised “moral security” agency? Imagine you’re holding grocery bags in the street when suddenly, someone accuses you of being improperly dressed. You attempt to comply; you may even ask them to leave you alone. But the intrusive person doesn’t relent. Instead, he or she puts their hands on you. They might club you, or call for backup, or call you a whore. They might pull you violently by the arm or push you to the ground while witnesses beg them to leave you alone. And if you’re unlucky, they might push you into a van and take you to a detainment center.
Mahsa Amini wasn’t that lucky—she had her head bashed in.
The 22-year-old Iranian Kurd was with her brother in Tehran on Sept. 13 when the dreaded Iranian morality police, known as Gašt-e Eršād, confronted her over what they deemed a violation of Iran’s mandatory hijab, or Islamic headscarf, law. Amini’s brother couldn’t protect her; she was severely beaten—witnesses said her head was smashed against the side of the police car. She fell into a coma, and died on Sept. 16. Authorities said she had suffered heart failure at the police station; leaked medical scans suggest otherwise.
And now, Iran is on fire.
It’s not news that the Iranian regime has blood on its hands. In the last few decades, it’s killed and maimed thousands, including American servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2020, Tehran even shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 167 on board.
But there’s something about Amini’s murder that has especially repulsed the world, as well as her fellow Iranians.
In response to the widespread demonstrations in the country that erupted after her death, the regime shut down the internet and access to social media apps such as Instagram, but it was too late. Iranians have had it, exhausted by 43 years of oppression and, yes, “modesty police.”
We’ve all seen images of protest from inside Iran during the four decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution turned the country into a fanatical theocracy. But last week, we saw unrest at a whole other level; images few of us had ever seen from Iran: Women angrily tearing their hijab from their heads and throwing the mandatory headscarves into a fire as hundreds around them cheered. I can’t tell you how much courage this takes.
This is something new, and it couldn’t have happened at a more eventful time.
Last week, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who’s known by the nickname “The Butcher of Tehran,” was in New York City to attend [and speak at] the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Yes, The Butcher of Tehran was in America.
We’d be right to ask why Raisi and his delegation were granted visas, but I’d like to pose another question: Isn’t it amazing that in the same state (New York) where Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad was almost kidnapped (2021) and nearly gunned down (2022) by Iran-backed assassins, and legendary author Salman Rushdie was stabbed over 10 times by a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini, the president of Iran was able to enjoy the crisp air of autumn and speak freely at a lectern?
The answer is either a testament to or a damning of modern American reality.
In response to the attacks against her, Alinejad, the journalist and broadcaster who in 2014 started an online movement calling on Iranian women to publicly remove their hijabs, and who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, did something I hadn’t seen before: She took to the airwaves and actually used profanities against Raisi and his ilk. Her exact words? “Khak bar saresh”—”dirt on your head,” a colorful euphemism expressing the hope that Raisi drop dead.
Regarding the Holocaust, Raisi recently told “60 Minutes” that there “are some signs that it happened,” but that those signs needed to be “investigated and researched.” Amazingly, he also stood at the United Nations and declared that his country was a model of human rights. “We are the defenders of a fight against injustice,” Raisi said. But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Raisi of crimes against humanity because he ordered the executions of over 5,000 political prisoners in the late 1980s. That’s why Iranians call him “The Butcher of Tehran.”
Few know that while in New York last week, Raisi held a meeting with a number of religious leaders. Iranian American human rights activist Elham Yaghoubian informed me that she’s trying to obtain a list of these individuals to find out whether any of them asked about Mahsa Amini, or about why Raisi denies the Holocaust.
And while Iran erupted in violent protests (there were nearly two dozen confirmed deaths at the time this article went to print) and Raisi enjoyed his stay in New York City, the Iranian Supreme Leader, 83-year-old Ali Khamenei, lay gravely ill in a hospital bed. His name was again cursed as thousands of angry Iranians took to the streets. In case anyone harbored hopeful delusions for a free Iran after Khamenei’s death, his son is being groomed to run the country.
I asked Marjan Keypour, an East Coast-based human rights activist who recently launched StopFemicideIran.org to track the murder of women and girls in Iran, if there was something different about these current protests.
“These protests are different for three reasons,” she said. First, they’re larger and more widespread: “With the passage of time, more civilians are disenchanted with the regime and have reached the point of demanding its complete rejection. Although they will continue their use of force to crack down on the protesters, the Iranian regime can no longer contain the widespread unrest, nor can it excuse it as an outlier phenomenon,” she said.
Second, the regime has run out of scapegoats: “They can no longer blame hardliners or reformists; the presence or absence of the JCPOA; they try to blame Israel and the United States, but the citizens know better and are facing the dead end of their options,” said Keypour.
And third, Keypour argued that we’re witnessing a new media narrative: “This time, the international media is paying attention, and the ‘regime-friendly’ narrative in the media is starting to change. We don’t know if the new focus on mass protests on the streets will have an effect in the short term, but at least we know that it will open the hearts and minds of the international community.”
The people of Iran, it seems, have really had it.
“Each time the courageous people of Iran come out onto the streets, there may be a different catalyst that brings them there, but the slogans you hear and the central message of their movement is always the same,” Lisa Daftari, a journalist, political commentator and editor-in-chief of The Foreign Desk told me.
Last week in Los Angeles, home to the largest Iranian diaspora in the world, a large anti-regime protest was held outside the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard. There were many other similar protests around the United States.
In the past, protests in Iran were also sparked by oppression against students, workers or teachers, but “women were always at the frontline,” said Iranian American human rights activist Yaghoubian. “And this time, it all started with women.”
That’s why I implore you to know Amini’s name; to memorize it and share her story widely: She was Mahsa Amini, and the image of her beaten face launched the burning of a thousand headscarves.
Tabby Refael is an award-winning LA-based writer, speaker and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.