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A year after Mahsa Amini's death, Iran still reels from protests and crackdowns


In Iran, authorities are setting up new checkpoints, deliberately slowing the country's already slow internet and detaining people, people they suspect may be planning to join protests this weekend. Those protests would mark one year since the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman who died in police custody, having been arrested reportedly for not wearing her headscarf correctly. It sparked outrage, the biggest anti-regime protests that country had seen in years.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

KELLY: But the crackdown was as brutal as it was predictable. Iran's security forces beat protesters. Hundreds were killed, thousands arrested. And by the time my team and I landed in Tehran this past February, the protests had largely been quelled. Still, as we walked the streets of Tehran, we saw quite a few women out and about with their hair uncovered, defying the mandatory dress code. Here's a mother and daughter we stopped on the sidewalk.

You're not wearing hijab. Is that new?


KELLY: Did you wear one before the protests?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, before...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...I use it. But right now, no.

KELLY: When did you take it off? Do you remember?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Maybe three or four months ago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: After death of Mahsa Amini.

KELLY: After the death of Mahsa Amini. Well, I want to bring in Golnaz Esfandiari. She's an Iranian-born journalist who covers Iran from outside the country for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Golnaz, great to talk to you again.

GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: What do we know about how tense it is right now in Iran? What are you hearing on this eve of the anniversary?

ESFANDIARI: So what we're seeing is an intensified repression. The establishment is cracking down on activists and others. The family members of those killed in the brutal state crackdown have been harassed. They've been pressured to remain silent. About 20 of them have been detained, including the family of Mahsa Amini has come under immense pressure. A rights group today reported that around 300 people have been arrested in the past two months. And so what we're seeing is, you know, a regime that is increasingly afraid of its own people.

KELLY: What you're describing sounds as though, if anything, the regime has been emboldened, is cracking down more than it was a year ago. Is that right?

ESFANDIARI: Yeah. The regime has become even more repressive. But, you know, the actions we're seeing are not the actions of a confident regime. On the contrary, they're terrified of the people. They're terrified of the women especially. And they see that despite all the measures they've been taking, despite all the people that were killed in the crackdown - over 500 people, including children - the people's defiance is far from over.

KELLY: Before we move on, have the leaders of Iran offered any concessions, any meaningful concessions in response to these protests?

ESFANDIARI: You know, the worldview of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is that you should not show any weakness. And concessions, in his view, is showing weakness to the population. What they did is that after Mahsa Amini's death in custody, there were no more morality patrols in the streets, so that was a small concessions. And then later, there was this amnesty. They announced an amnesty, I think, for thousands of people who were arrested in the crackdown. But later on, we saw that some of those people who were amnestied were sent back to prison, or the government kept pressuring them and harassing them, including journalists. As we speak, two journalists who broke Mahsa Amini's story - they're still in jail for a year just for reporting about her death and about her funeral.

KELLY: So what do we know of what life looks like now for women in Iran?

ESFANDIARI: You know, I - from the reports we're receiving, women have become braver. They're bolder. They're still - despite, you know, the warnings by officials and other attempts to force them to wear the hijab, there are still many women who are coming to the streets without headscarves. Now, some of them tell us, you know, I have a headscarf in my bag in case it's needed, but they're just defying. And I was speaking to this woman, and she told me, this is the least I can do in reaction to what happened in this country. I personally think that something broke during the recent protests and especially the crackdown, and I believe it was a turning point. And nothing - it's not going to go back to things - we're not going to go back to the way they were.

KELLY: Say more about that. When you say something broke, what do you mean?

ESFANDIARI: Seventy - about 70 children were killed. How can people forget that? How can people forget the level of cruelty we saw from this regime in the streets of Tehran and other cities? That's what I mean by something broke, and I don't think people can go back to the way they were. The gap between the people and the establishment - and it's - it was already a huge gap - it has widened. The government or the establishment is not willing, and it cannot address the grievances people have.

KELLY: What will you be watching for tomorrow on the actual anniversary as you try to assess what the state of dissent is in Iran?

ESFANDIARI: Well, I don't expect a major protest because of the crackdown, because of the security measures authorities have been taking in the past days and months and weeks. But we will be watching if, you know, we receive any videos from inside the country of people protesting. I will be also definitely reading what the state media are reporting to find out between the lines what's happening. But we have lots of people who - despite the pressure they face, they still send us information from inside the country. So we'll be looking at those and see and try to find out what's happening inside the country.

KELLY: That's interesting, though, because it sounds like what you're saying is even if we do not see mass protests this weekend, that does not mean the anti-government anger is gone. It's just...

ESFANDIARI: Absolutely not.

KELLY: ...Gone beneath the surface.

ESFANDIARI: Absolutely not. There's fire under the ashes. People are very much angry about what happened. And there's also a lot of frustration because of the poor state of the economy that is crushed by sanctions but as well of years of mismanagement. People feel they're taken hostage by - you know, by the policies of this regime, and they're just fed up. You know, Iranians, as you know yourself - you've been there - they're very much connected. They're - they know exactly what's happening in the world, especially the young people. And they're aware of the rights they're being denied of under this establishment.

KELLY: Golnaz Esfandiari is the managing editor for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty's Persian Service. We reached her today in Prague. Golnaz, thank you.

ESFANDIARI: Thank you for having me.

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[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.