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Source: DW

Feb 10, 2023

BY Shabnam von Hein

Iranian authorities brutally cracked down on demonstrations in recent months. But even though the wave of protests has subsided, the spark of resistance is still growing in Iranian society.

Everything is under control, Islamic Republic officials insist, in public. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even decided to pardon tens of thousands of prisoners, including many who were thrown in jail during the anti-government protests.

There is no official information on the number of demonstrators being held in the country's overflowing jails. However, human rights organizations say that by mid-December more than 18,000 people had been arrested for taking part in the protests across the country. More than 500 protesters have been killed, including at least 63 minors. Many, if not most, were shot in the head. The latest wave of demonstrations was sparked by the death in mid-September of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody.

Despite the violent suppression of the protests, they continued for at least 100 days, according to a 44-page analysis by the prominent sociologist Saeed Madani. His report was smuggled out of prison last week and published on social networks. Madani, a 61-year-old professor from Tehran University, was arrested in May 2022 for saying, in an interview about protests against inflation and food shortages that were taking place at the time: "These protests are directed against the whole political system, and they are recurrent."

"The latest wave of protests, supported by different social strata and ethnic and religious minorities, has left a deep mark and changed society," he wrote in his analysis.  "The courage to resist and solidarity among the oppressed have grown across all generations."

Iranian authorities threw some 18,000 people in jail for protesting against the government

Increased repression after protests

"In the aftermath of revolutionary phases like these, or in general after phases of mass mobilization under autocratic regimes, repression often increases sharply," said Jannis Grimm, who conducts research into protest and revolution at the Center for Interdisciplinary Peace and Conflict Research at Freie Universität Berlin.

Grimm took Egypt as an example, telling DW: "After the military coup of 2013, repression was massively intensified in order to crush all resistance and nip it in the bud. But this policy also contains within it the seed of potential resistance. Because in instigating brutal repression, autocrats always risk creating new myths and martyrs. That can provide the catalyst for the next phase of mobilization."

One such phase of mobilization can currently be observed in Sistan and Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran. The provincial capital, Zahedan, has become a protest stronghold. The situation there has been very tense over the past five months.

"The security forces are everywhere," Fariba Balouch, a human rights activist, told DW. "At least 15 roadblocks have been set up in the city, and the internet is still severely restricted."

Balouch, who has been living in exile in London for the past three years, has many connections in Zahedan, her hometown. "People have been protesting every Friday since the September 30 massacre," she says.

That day — a Friday — more than 80 people were shot over the course of several hours by security forces in Zahedan. Some of the security forces were stationed on rooftops near the central mosque, and they opened fire on a crowd that gathered in the streets after Friday prayers. Iranians all over the country were shocked by the news of "Bloody Friday" in Zahedan, which they didn't hear about until later, on account of the internet blackout.

The mobilization of women

There were children and elderly women among the dead. Bloody Friday mobilized many women in the traditionally conservative province of Sistan and Baluchistan, and prompted them to join the protests, Balouch said.

"A lot of women burned their long black chadors and have gone back to wearing the colorful, traditional clothes they used to wear until the Islamic Revolution," Balouch said. "Even religiously oriented women are showing solidarity at the Friday protests and supporting the demand for equal rights for women in Iran."

The protesters in the region are supported by the influential Sunni cleric Mawlawi Abdul Hamid, who preaches the Friday sermon in the provincial capital. In Sistan and Baluchistan, unlike the rest of the country, Sunni Muslims are in the majority. They are subjected to systematic discrimination by the central government. The province, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, is one of the poorest regions in Iran. Many worshippers who attend Friday prayers live in small towns and villages where there are no schools, no electricity and no running water.

"Mawlawi Abdul Hamid has rejected the Tehran government's offer of money to appease the families of the demonstrators killed on September 30," Balouch said. "People are demanding justice. They want freedom, and a different political system; they're shouting 'Death to the dictator.'"

Protests and demonstrations continue, and not only in Sistan and Baluchistan. Some 1,800 kilometers away, in the Kurdish regions on Iran's western border with Iraq, protest rallies are still a regular occurrence. There was one on February 1, in the small town of Abdanan, where demonstrators gathered in the town center and burned down a statue glorifying the Basij militia. 

"Once the wall of fear collapses, it takes a very long time to rebuild," said Grimm, the social protest researcher.

Many people, especially women, are now engaging in civil resistance.

"For example, many women have stopped wearing headscarves," Katajun Amirpur, a professor of Islamic Studies who specializes in Iran, told DW. "The main thing that has changed is that there is now a greater sense of solidarity. This is reflected in the cry: 'From Zahedan to Kurdistan, my heart belongs to Iran.' That's a very nice development."

This article has been translated from German.

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