The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran has ignited the most powerful protests the country has seen in years.
Authorities there have rolled out a host of new tools to throttle mobile phone connections, block social media sites, and make it harder for people on the ground to organize.
The "Click Here" podcast team spoke to one man who has been protesting since Amini’s death was announced, and he talked to us about the dangers of using social media and technology while participating in street demonstrations. He asked us not to use his real name because speaking to foreign reporters could get him arrested. Amin talked with us about getting around internet restrictions, the dangers of using social media in Iran, and how protesters handle their passwords.
Click Here: When did you first hear about the protests?
It didn’t start with me going to the protests. It started with me hearing that a woman named Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran’s “morality police,” and rushed to the ER a few hours later. We all thought the same thing — that something bad happened to her. As hours passed and photos started coming out, it became obvious that the authorities had hit her in the head or something
. A few hours later, she passed away. There were some minor protests outside the hospital where she was, and after that we were all waiting for the big protest. I remember saying to my friend, ‘This is the moment.’ When the picture of Mahsa in the hospital went out on Instagram, I remember feeling the blood boiling inside my veins. It was hatred and anger – all that at the same time.
Did this start as a women’s movement, and then it became something bigger?
It definitely started as a women’s movement. Women’s rights in Iran is a tricky subject because the majority of people in Iran agree that women are oppressed. Iran is ruled by a dictatorship, an oppressive regime. There’s so many different oppressions women go through, and this was just a trigger for all that to explode. The protests started as a women’s movement, but I don’t mean a movement only by women, but a movement for women. Over that time, I’m happy to say it’s kept that spirit, but now it’s maybe about something bigger, too. There are people who are pursuing regime change through these demonstrations, and there are people who want more freedom to come out of this.
Is there something about these protests that feels different to you when compared, say, to the 2009 Green Movement that protested election rigging?
Yeah. There’s one moment that jumps out. You might have seen a picture of a girl who’s burning a scarf on a stick
and she’s standing on top of a car. I was there. I was maybe five meters away from her when she did that. That was something that was happening again and again: girls going on top of the cars and burning their scarves. We knew that the Islamic Republic was going to crack down on us. We knew that it was going to get violent. That very same day that I saw that girl on the car, they beat me up with a bat. But at the same time, there was this feeling of achievement, like we are finally free. We are doing this, and nobody has stopped us yet. Even talking about it right now, I have goosebumps. That was a cheerful moment for me, even though I got beaten up 40 minutes after that.
You told us that when you go out to these protests, you don’t take your phone. Why is that?
It’s always safer to not bring your phone even for recording audio or taking photos. The main issue with bringing your phone out is if they catch you, that’s going to give them some serious evidence against you. If they catch you and you have photos of the protests, then you’re in trouble because no regular passing citizen would do that, at least not in their book.Also, I need to be careful about access to my social media accounts. For example, I have a Twitter account and my Twitter account talks about the Islamic Republic Supreme Leader and everything political. But it’s a nameless account. Most social media accounts that deal with political stuff in Iran are nameless because they want to stay away from the threat of the government getting onto them. If I bring my phone with me to a protest, and they get me, then they have all the proof they need that I’m anti regime and I’ve tried to get people to come to protest.Everyone I know leaves all their passwords for social media, email, everything with their family. And in case they’re not back by the time they’ve told their family, those family members ought to destroy everything unless that’s gonna be used against their loved one.
What is it like going online in Iran?
Iran cannot access many different Western services. That’s not only because of the censorship in Iran and filtering, but also because censorship from the US. Because we’re Iranians, companies are not allowed to give us access to certain services. So we are under pressure from both the Islamic Republic’s government and the sanctions from the West, which leads to people trying to come up with alternatives.
What kinds of alternatives?
For example, you have Uber. We have a Snapp. You have Amazon. We have Digikala
. These kinds of services obviously are not as good as their American counterparts, but they’re good enough. Like, most Americans are gonna be surprised to see the level of sophistication they have. The other part is the social media counterparts. Iran’s government tries to shift people from using WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram, Twitter, to their Iranian counterparts. That’s because the government has better surveillance over those alternative platforms.
So, how do you organize on social media? Is the regime able to throttle things so it’s hard to organize?
So the way it works is Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, and some other social media websites are always censored within Iran. Almost everyone learned how to use VPNs on proxies and stuff like that to kind of get around the censorship. Right now, even my grandmother, who is 78, asks us to set up VPNs for her and show her how to use them.
So, what’s been happening more recently with Iran’s internet since the latest protests started?
After the first couple days of protests, Iran has tightened its grip over their internet. Many VPNs that people could use to get out of the censorship before simply don’t work because you just have access to the internal internet. Most people who find a way out of the country’s internet have ties to businesses or have a family member that has a tie to a business. That way you can kind of route your way through one of those safer servers. That’s what I’m doing right now.
How would you describe the protesters you’re seeing in Tehran?
So the main body of protesters I’ve seen is around 18 to 35 years old. You see middle-aged people, but it’s mainly young people. The number of people who’ve participated in them is not on par with the revolution yet. People are scared to come out, and they’re within their rights to be scared to come out. I think people inside Iran are changing. For example, the “morality police” have always been violent. They’re evil. I think the reason people hear more and more violent stories about the morality police is because the newer generation doesn’t submit to their standards like the older generation did.When you go out, you visibly see many people not wearing a hijab right now, and police are out there, but they don’t have the guts to get someone on that right now. I think that’s an achievement.
So, it isn’t that the “morality police” got tougher… it’s that the younger generation decided to test them more? Is that how you see it?
I think so.
Does this feel different from other demonstrations and protests you’ve seen?
Yeah, it feels different, it definitely feels different.
Where do you see this movement going?
No matter what’s going to happen in the coming days, I don’t think the hijab is going to be the same. Maybe the “morality police” will still be around, but it’s not going to be to the same degree. And I feel like it’s a fight that’s not going to end. Maybe it’s going to get quiet, but it just needs another spark, and then you’re going to have another fire, another protest. I think the struggle for hijab and women’s rights is going to continue. I’m hopeful it’s going to lead to some bigger change.It’s not a revolution yet, but it might very well be on the path towards it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
An earlier version of this story originally appeared in The Record.Media. There was additional reporting by Will Jarvis.