Oct 17, 2022 - World

"No going back": Gen Z at the forefront of protests in Iran

Iranian protesters set their scarves on fire while marching down a street on Oct. 1 in Tehran, Iran. Photo: Getty Images

Iranian protesters set their scarves on fire while marching down a street on Oct. 1 in Tehran, Iran. Photo: Getty Images

As the protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini enter their second month, one of the distinguishing characteristics between this wave of demonstrations and past movements has been the prominent role of Gen Z protesters, particularly young women.

The big picture: The protesters have faced an increasingly hardened government crackdown, including deadly violence by security forces, internet restrictions and mass arrests. But young people continue to go to the streets — and find ways to protest online — to demand greater social freedoms and a government that better serves the interests of the Iranian public.

Catch up quick: The protests began in mid-September, just days after Amini died while in the custody of Iran's morality police, who arrested the 22-year-old for allegedly violating a religious law requiring women to wear a headscarf. Authorities say Amini wasn't mistreated — a claim her family has cast doubt on.

  • Since then, protests have spread to dozens of cities across Iran and worldwide.
  • Videos have proliferated in recent weeks of girls and young women taking off and defiantly waving their headscarves in Iranian schools and the streets, shouting "death to the dictator," referring to 83-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
  • In a city outside Tehran, school-aged girls reportedly chased an education official out of their school. "If we don't unite, they will kill us one by one," teenage schoolgirls in Karaj shouted in one video, verified by the BBC.

The nonprofit Iran Human Rights estimated on Monday that 27 children were among the at least 215 people killed in the protests since they began.

  • The deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps said earlier this month that the average age of most people arrested during the protests is 15 years old.
  • For their part, Khamenei and other Iranian officials have without evidence blamed the protests on outside forces — a claim protesters and their supporters have repeatedly rejected.
  • Iran's education minister said last week that some school children have been detained in the protests and taken to "psychological institutions," the independent reformist Iranian outlet Shargh reported. He said the students can "return to the school environment after they've been reformed."

Driving the news: Women have always been a part of protest movements in Iran, but the markedly young age of many of the protesters as well as the fact that they are being led by women, sets this wave of demonstrations apart from the past, analysts say.

  • The uniqueness of the situation is that "young women, in particular, are leading this and that the fear barrier is broken — that we're not just seeing this in major cities but in many smaller towns all across Iran," Merissa Khurma, program director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, tells Axios.

Young Gen Z protesters also "don't appear to have the same fears or trepidations of previous generations," says Assal Rad of the National Iranian American Council. She notes that the participation of school kids is a distinction from the 2009 Green movement, a monthslong pro-democracy movement sparked by the contested results of the 2009 presidential election.

  • Part of this is due to their age, as "they’re less averse to risk than people who are older," but is also attributable to the fact that they didn't live through the events that shaped older generations, such as the 1979 revolution and the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Rad explains.
  • Young people have been galvanized because "they see their futures on the line," Rad tells Axios.

State of play: Gen Z Iranians also have more ways to protest and know more ways to circumvent restrictions than many did during in demonstrations in years past.

  • "That's how we're seeing these videos. That's how we're seeing these protests," Rad says.
  • This access to different forms of information and about the outside world has helped fuel diverse forms of demonstrations — such song and poetry — as well as Gen Z's enthusiasm for protest, Khurma says.
  • "They see a different world that they are not living, and so they're able to better understand the injustices, the inequalities," she says. "They're more empowered, they're more confident, they're less risk averse to speak their minds.”

What to watch: While it's not likely that a complete reversal of the government's restrictions will occur — since that would presume a complete collapse of the government — Rad predicts that the continuing protests will force the government to loosen some restrictions.

  • “There's no going back to the same status quo because I think those taboos have been broken," Rad says.
  • "The reality of it is, if they continue civil disobedience, there isn't much that the state can do, you know? What can a state do if 20 million women decide they're not going to do something, arrest a fourth of the country?”
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