Iranian schoolgirls take up battle cry as anti-government protests continue

Demonstrations have lasted nearly two weeks despite security forces responding with live ammunition and brutal violence

High school girls have become the latest Iranians to join anti-government protests in large numbers, as the country mourned a teenager killed in the first days of protests.

Nika Shahkarami, who lived in Tehran and would have turned 17 on Sunday, vanished in September. Her family found her body in a detention centre’s morgue 10 days later, BBC Persian reported.

On Tuesday, president Ebrahim Raisi called for unity against the protests even as they continued to grow, bringing together Iranians across ethnic and class divides, despite the government crackdown.

He repeated the official government line that the protest movement was driven by foreign provocateurs but did acknowledge Iranians were angry about the “shortcomings” of the Islamic Republic.


However, public fury is so widespread that even one hardline daily newspaper openly challenged the authorities, accusing them of being in denial about their own failings and unpopularity. “Neither foreign enemies nor domestic opposition can take cities into a state of riot without a background of discontent,” an editorial in the Jomhuri Eslami said. “The denial of this fact will not help.”

The demonstrations have lasted nearly two weeks, and represent the most serious popular challenge to Iran’s elderly theocratic leaders in over a decade. And unlike past protest movements, they have been led by women.

They were initially sparked by the death in custody of a young Kurdish woman who had been detained by morality police, and the name of Mahsa Amini has become a digital rallying cry for supporters.

But the protests have expanded into a broader call for change, from a population frustrated by political controls and economic isolation and stagnation. Security forces have responded with live ammunition and brutal violence, killing more than 50 people already and arresting more than 1,500.

But Iranians have continued to come out into the streets, and in their homes, schools and offices attack or remove pictures of the two supreme leaders who have ruled since the revolution — Ayatollah Khomeini and now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In one video from a classroom a girl replaced an image of the pair with the slogan of the protest movement, footage shared on social media showed. In another image, a group of teenagers photographed themselves making obscene gestures towards the two men.

The protesters have adopted a rallying cry that originated with Kurdish women fighters: “Women. Life. Freedom”. In videos from across Iran, women are walking and dancing in the streets without their hair covered, and burning their scarves.

Where people are not able to march, they have organised indoor protests and evaded a government internet crackdown to upload videos and photos.

Iranian authorities have a long history of using deadly force against protesters, including in 2019 and 2009. As the movement gathers pace, and rulers in Tehran seem increasingly unnerved, western governments have warned Khamenei against escalation.

US president Joe Biden said he was “gravely concerned about reports of the intensifying violent crackdown”. Washington backed technological solutions that would allow Iranian citizens to dodge their government’s internet controls, Mr Biden added. He also threatened “further costs” for anyone responsible for violence against peaceful protesters.

France pushed for the European Union to “target senior officials and hold them responsible”, the Associated Press reported. In the UK, the government summoned the Iranian ambassador, and the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, described levels of violence as “truly shocking”.

The government has attempted to frighten Iranian celebrities and reporters into staying silent online, and force ordinary civilians back into their homes, but so far their efforts have been met with mixed success.

On Monday students protested against mass arrests in Tehran, with a demonstration in the conservative city of Mashhad, where they suggested so many of their number had been detained that the country’s most infamous prison looked more like a campus.

“Sharif University has become a jail! Evin prison has become a university,” they shouted. Sharif University became a battleground at the weekend, with students besieged by security forces using tear gas and many were arrested.

Schoolgirls marched in the streets without their hijabs, shouting “Women. Life. Freedom” in the city of Karaj, west of the capital, and in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, according to widely shared footage.

The scenes had echoes of the days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the current government to power. Then, as today, large numbers of women came out to protest against mandatory hijab, and high school students played a key role, although the demonstrations were eventually crushed.

Dozens of Iranian journalists have been arrested in an apparent bid to shut down news about the protests, and the government has attempted to choke off the internet and bar access to key social media sites used to both plan protests and share news.

Authorities also seized a musician who set protest chants and messages to music. Shervin Hajipour’s mournful song “For the Sake Of” became an unofficial anthem almost overnight; he has been released on bail.

“For my sister, for your sister, for our sisters,” he sings on the record, recognition of women’s crucial role leading the demonstrations. — Guardian