Young Iranian Protesters Have Nothing Left to Lose

“After Mahsa, everything is hanging by a hair.”

Those words, spray-painted in red on a Tehran wall last week, sum up the atmosphere of rage and defiance that has consumed Iran since the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in police custody in mid-September after being arrested for failing to properly veil her hair.

Rallies have turned progressively more violent. Videos captured on cellphone cameras show nightly scenes of terrifying bravery: women tearing off their veils and screaming at advancing lines of riot police. Dozens of protesters have been killed, and in some cities they have struck back, burning down police stations and killing the paramilitary thugs sent to suppress them.

The Islamic Republic is not about to fall. But something is different this time. In 2009, I reported on the protests that shook the country after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Back then, reform was the ostensible goal. Demonstrators flooded the streets in support of a presidential candidate—Mir-Hossein Mousavi—who was himself a product of the Iranian system.

This time, raw fury is in the air, a sense that protesters are girding themselves for war rather than liberation. Their chants suggest a new spirit of intransigence: “We will fight, we will die, we will get Iran back.” The protesters don’t seem to have illusions about their country blooming into democracy; this is not an Iranian spring. They are not inclined toward politics as a vehicle for change, and that in itself is a troubling sign. If the protests have one theme, it seems to be sheer hatred of the Iranian regime.

The protests may be remembered as a defining experience for Iran’s Generation Z. One Iranian journalist friend told me he saw teenagers fighting armed Basij militias using methods learned from Clash of Clans, a popular video game. (The government blocked the game’s website soon afterward, he said.) “When you talk to middle-aged people, they tell you that these protests have changed their view of the generation born after 2000,” the journalist said. “They thought these kids were just into video games and music, but they have proved their bravery, their willingness to fight for liberty.”

At the same time, the government’s own methods in recent days—hiding police in ambulances to infiltrate protest crowds—have deepened the public’s mistrust, he said. (The journalist asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, citing the recent arrests of those who reported on the protests.)

Although Amini’s death provided the spark for these protests, this revolt rises from a broader well of anger among a younger generation of Iranians who feel that they have nothing left to lose. By the time Amini walked out of a subway station in Tehran on September 15, the stage was already set for a confrontation.

Iranian youth are bearing the brunt of the country’s economic stagnation and isolation. Unemployment is rising—it is now officially 23.7 percent among 15-to-24-year-olds—and job opportunities are shrinking. Even those who have jobs face stagnant wages and lowered buying power, thanks in part to the Western sanctions imposed to block Iran’s nuclear program. “Even a young guy with a tech job who’s earning the equivalent of $500 a month, it could take him years to earn enough to buy a car,” I was told by an Iranian friend who works in finance.

A series of corruption scandals in recent years has exposed the gulf between those with regime connections and those without. In August, Iran’s parliament documented the theft of billions of dollars by executives of a government-supervised steel company. In 2020, the administrator of a charity controlled by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke publicly about the misallocation of huge sums by politicians and the Revolutionary Guard.

Other governments might look for a safety valve to ease the pain for young people. That is what the Islamic Republic did five years ago, when a similar round of demonstrations broke out. Those protests started after the arrest of a young woman named Vida Movahed, who was seen in a widely shared video standing on a utility box, her dark hair bared, her white headscarf dangling from the end of a pole.

Then as now, young people rallied in the streets, and some were killed. But the protests faded in less than a week, perhaps partly because the reigning government of Hassan Rouhani gave young people greater freedom to dress and behave as they liked. “One can’t impose one’s way of life on future generations,” Rouhani famously said. The country’s hard-liners were unhappy with this liberalizing drift, and they helped engineer the latest presidential election, in 2021, for one of their own: a former hanging judge named Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi seems determined to beat Iran’s young people into submission. In July, he ordered all government bodies to form a strategy to ratchet up enforcement of the hijab, or Islamic veil. Violations of the rule were “promoting corruption” and damaging the values of the Islamic Republic, he said. High-ranking officials fell into line, pledging to bar women who are improperly covered from gaining access to basic government services.

Iran’s dwindling band of reformist figures and even some conservatives warned even before the protests that Raisi was needlessly alienating the country’s young people. Raisi did not relent. “In the history of Islamic Iran, the life of the women of Iran has always been associated with chastity and the hijab,” Raisi said in August.

Raisi is following the example of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder, who emphasized the tremendous symbolic power of the hijab. It was Khomeini who declared that “every time a male and female body brush against each other in a bus, the pillars of our revolution tremble.”

Those words were clearly meant as a warning. But by tying the regime’s survival to its ability to police women’s bodies, the old ayatollah also handed his enemies a weapon. That is why Mahsa Amini has become such a powerful martyr for the younger generation. Just by tearing a thin piece of fabric from their heads, they can challenge a regime they have come to loathe for all kinds of reasons.

Everything, in other words, is hanging by a hair.

The Atlantic