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.” Sometimes, they 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 push you into a van and take you into custody at a detainment center.
Mahsa Amini wasn’t that lucky. Rather than being pushed around or taken into a van, Amini had her head bashed in.
She was a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd who, on September 13, was with her brother in Tehran when the dreaded Iranian “moral security” police, known as Gašt-e Eršād, confronted her over what they deemed was a violation of Iran’s mandatory hijab, or Islamic headscarf, law. Amini’s brother couldn’t protect her; she was severely beaten and witnesses said her head was smashed against the side of the police car. She fell into a coma and died on September 16. Authorities said she 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 a lot of blood on its hands. In the last few decades, it’s killed and injured 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 the murder of Mahsa Amini that has especially repulsed the world, including inside Iran.
Seeing the people demonstrate, the regime shut down the internet and access to social media apps such as Instagram, but it was too late. The citizens have had it, exhausted by 43 years of oppression and yes, “modesty police.”
Last week, we saw images few of us had ever seen from Iran: Women angrily tearing their hijab from their heads and throwing their mandatory headscarves into a fire as hundreds around them cheered. I can’t tell you how much courage this takes.
We’ve all seen images of protest from inside Iran during the last four decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution turned the country into a fanatic theocracy. But last week, we saw a whole other level; images that few of us had ever seen from Iran: Women angrily tearing their hijab from their heads and throwing their 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, Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president 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 ten 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 praiseful testament to or a damning reality about America today.
In response, Alinejad, the journalist and broadcaster who, in 2014, started an online movement asking Iranian women to publicly remove their hijab, and who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, did something I haven’t see before: She took to the airwaves and actually used profanities against Raisi and his ilk. Her exact words? “Khak bar saresh,” which is a colorful euphemism for the hope that someone drops dead.
Regarding the Holocaust, Raisi recently told “60 Minutes” that there “are some signs that it happened,” but those signs needed to be “investigated and researched.” Amazingly, he also stood at the U.N. 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 why Raisi denies the Holocaust.
And while Iran erupted in violent protests (there were nearly two dozen confirmed deaths at the time this paper went to print) and Ebrahim 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 has 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 crackdown 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 U.S., 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 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 U.S.
In the past, protests in Iran were also sparked by oppression against students, workers or teachers, but “women were always at the frontline,” said Yaghoubian. “And this time, it all started with women.”
I implore all of us to know Amini’s name; memorize it and share her story widely: She was Mahsa Amini, and the image of her beaten face while she lay in a comatose state launched the burning of a thousand headscarves.
That’s why I implore all of us to know Amini’s name; memorize it and share her story widely: She was Mahsa Amini, and the image of her beaten face while she lay in a comatose state 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