In the protests for women’s rights sweeping Iran, which have now been underway for nearly three weeks, a new cohort of leaders have emerged: schoolgirls and women of younger generations.
Wednesday marked the 19th day since demonstrators took to the streets of Iran, triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman. Amini was detained by the country’s “morality police” in Tehran for allegedly wearing her hijab loosely, going against the government’s strict religious dress code for women. Iranians have since protested the government and police, calling for women to be able to choose whether they wear the hijab.
Women have gone out in public without their hijabs, burned their hijabs, and documented police violence to share with people outside the country through virtual private networks, due to the government shutting down online communication. The protests have resulted in dozens of people killed and more than 1,000 people arrested. Iran’s state TV says the death toll could be as high as 41, while London-based Amnesty International says it has identified at least 52 victims.
With the school year having started, the spotlight has turned to high schools and universities, where female children, teenagers and young adults are keeping up the movement’s momentum. Videos show girls across the country taking off their hijabs, chanting slogans, setting fire to their headscarves, giving the middle finger to photos of the country’s leaders and marching in the streets.
Last week, Iran’s riot police trapped students in a car park at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology and imposed a violent crackdown, shooting at women and arresting hundreds of protesters. Video shows students at the prestigious institution chanting “Death to Khamenei” from their windows ― a reference to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has condemned the demonstrations.
In the following days, the protests spread to other schools. Girls all across Iran are chanting “Death to the dictator,” “Woman, life, freedom” and “Mullahs must get lost,” among other expressions. A BBC reporter tweeted a video of schoolgirls removing their hijabs and chanting “Get lost” at a member of the paramilitary volunteer force Basij ― part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard ― who came to address students at the school about the protests.
“A student would rather die than accept humiliation,” students at Mashhad’s University of Medical Sciences chanted earlier this month. Students at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University chanted, “Don’t call it a protest, it’s a revolution now.”
The average age of recently detained protesters is 15, said Ali Fadavi, the second-highest commander in the Revolutionary Guard. Most of the protesters are from younger generations, born after the 1979 revolution that resulted in Iran becoming an Islamic republic. These Iranians have grown up knowing little but global isolation, Western sanctions and strict religious oppression.
The anger has increased with the recent disappearance and death of Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old girl who lived in Tehran with her mother. Nika joined the protests without a hijab on Sept. 20, when her uncle says she vanished. Ten days later, her family was asked to identify her body at a prison morgue.
Nika said in her last message to a friend that security forces were chasing her, the girl’s aunt Atash Shakarami told BBC Persian. Shakarami said authorities did not allow Nika’s family to see her body ― only, briefly, her face. Security forces arrested the aunt after raiding her house, according to BBC Persian, threatening to kill her if anyone in the family participated in a protest.
Nika’s family transferred her body to her father’s hometown of Khorramabad on Sunday ― what would have been her 17th birthday. The family did not hold a funeral after being threatened by authorities, but the BBC reported that security forces “stole” Nika’s body from Khorramabad and buried her in the village of Veysian.
Relatives have not yet been told how Nika officially died, though Iranian activists outside the country claim she died in police custody. Prosecutor Dariush Shahoonvand denied wrongdoing by authorities, according to the Hamshahri Daily.
The girl’s photo has since circulated on social media, with her name being used as a hashtag just as activists did with Amini’s name.