High school girls have become the latest Iranian women to join anti-government protests in large numbers as the country mourns a teenage girl killed in the first days of the protests.
Nika Shakarami, who lived in Tehran and would have turned 17 on Sunday, disappeared in September. Her family found her body in the detention center’s morgue 10 days later, BBC Persian reported.
On Tuesday, President Ebrahim Raisi called for unity against the protests as they continued to grow, uniting Iranians across ethnic and class divides despite a government crackdown.
He repeated the official government line that the protest movement was driven by foreign provocateurs, but acknowledged that Iranians were angry about the Islamic Republic’s “shortcomings.”
However, public anger is so widespread that even a hardline daily has openly challenged the authorities, accusing them of denying their own failings and unpopularity.
“Neither foreign enemies nor domestic opposition can bring cities into a state of unrest without a background of discontent,” Jomhuri Eslami’s editorial said. “Denying this fact won’t help.”
The demonstrations have lasted nearly two weeks and represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s senior theocratic leaders in a decade. And unlike past protest movements, they were led by women.
They were initially sparked by the death of a young Kurdish woman who was detained by the morality police, and the name Mahse Amini became a digital rallying cry for supporters.
But the protests have expanded into a broader call for change, from a population frustrated by political control and economic isolation and stagnation.
Security forces responded with live ammunition and brutal violence, killing over 50 people and arresting over 1,500.
But Iranians have continued to take to the streets, and in their homes, schools and offices to attack or remove images of the two supreme leaders who have ruled since the revolution – Ayatollah Khomeini and now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In one video from the classroom, the girl replaced the image of the couple with the slogan of the protest movement, according to videos shared on social networks. In another picture, a group of teenagers were photographed making obscene gestures towards two men.
Demonstrators adopted a rallying cry originated by Kurdish female fighters: “Women. Life. Freedom”. In videos from across Iran, women walk and dance in the streets with their hair uncovered and burn their scarves.
Where people are unable to march, they have staged indoor protests and evaded government crackdowns online to post videos and photos.
Iranian authorities have a long history of using lethal force against protesters, including in 2019 and 2009. As the movement gathers pace and rulers in Tehran appear increasingly nervous, Western governments have warned Khamenei against escalation.
Joe Biden said he was “seriously concerned about reports of escalating violence.” Washington has supported technological solutions that would allow Iranian citizens to evade their government’s control of the Internet, the US president added. He also threatened “further costs” for anyone responsible for violence against peaceful protesters.
France demanded that the EU “target senior officials and hold them accountable,” the Associated Press reported. In the UK, the government summoned Iran’s ambassador and Foreign Secretary James Cleverley described the levels of violence as “truly shocking”.
The government has tried to scare Iranian celebrities and journalists into silence online, and to force ordinary civilians to return to their homes, but so far their efforts have met with mixed success.
Students protested the mass arrests in Tehran on Monday, with demonstrations in the conservative city of Mashhad suggesting that so many were locked up that the country’s most notorious prison was more like a campus.
“Sharif University has become a prison!” “Evin prison has become a university,” they shouted. Sharif University became a battleground over the weekend, with students surrounded by security forces using tear gas and many arrested.
Schoolgirls marched through the streets without hijabs, shouting “Women. Life. Freedom” in the city of Karaj, west of the capital, and in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, according to widely circulated footage.
The scenes had echoes of the days after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which brought the current government to power. Then, as now, a large number of women came out to protest against the mandatory hijab, and high school students played a key role, although the demonstrations were eventually suppressed.
Dozens of Iranian journalists have been arrested in an apparent attempt to shut down news of the protests, and the government has tried to throttle the internet and block access to key social media sites used for both protest planning and news sharing.
Authorities also seized a musician who set protest songs and messages to music. Sherwin Hadjipour’s plaintive song “Zaradi Radi” became an unofficial anthem almost overnight; he was released on bail.
“For my sister, for your sister, for our sisters,” he sings on the record, acknowledging the key role of women at the forefront of the demonstrations.