Why The World Should Track Iran’s Zen, Zendegi, Azadi Protests

Iran’s protest is a war against the custodians of faith. What happens next will impact women across the world.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Protest in Berlin at Pariser Platz on Sept. 23, 2022, over the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini. (Photo: Michael Kuenne/PRESSCOV/Sipa USA/Reuters)</p></div>
Protest in Berlin at Pariser Platz on Sept. 23, 2022, over the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini. (Photo: Michael Kuenne/PRESSCOV/Sipa USA/Reuters)

Watching videos of Iranian women chop their hair and set fire to their hijabs on the streets since Sept. 16, going against their country’s strict laws and risking their lives, has fired up my feminine energy. I’ve also got a knot in my stomach and a hand on my face, alternately hiding, then peering through my fingers, wondering what comes next in the battle for Zen, Zendegi, Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom).

The scale of this leaderless protest powered by the youth, across ideologies and incomes, its visual power shining bright across social media, and the sense of urgency and bravery of the young protestors set it apart from most modern-day protests. It’s already snagged its place in history alongside #BlackLivesMatter, #FridaysForFuture, Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protest.

And as mainstream media fails, yet again, to deliver accurate, up-to-date news on the world’s latest anti-government civil resistance, the real picture is clearly visible on an exiled Iranian journalist’s Instagram account. It’s a reminder that even if the establishment blacks you out, there are ways to share your story with the world.

Masih Alinejad has been urging women to speak up against an oppressive state since 2014 through her Facebook account ‘My Stealthy Freedom’, where women from Iran share secretly taken photos and videos of themselves without their veil. As the subject of Dexter Filkins's latest profile in New Yorker magazine, her audience will likely grow even larger than her millions of social media followers.

The latest protest is a climactic moment in the idea of #walkingunveiled, which has been around for a while in Iran. You don’t need to understand Farsi to feel the power and desperation emanating from the videos of women who are holding their long hair up in one hand and snipping it determinedly with the other. But if you know someone who understands the language, like I did, there are many more powerful testimonials coming out of the country.

In one video, an older man stands at a grave saying that all he sees is young people. He urges parents to support their children and end the ‘worshipping of old’ (Kohne Parasti), a likely reference to Iran’s ailing 83-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In another, an out-of-breath 16-year-old films the street ahead of her and shares her story with Alinejad as she walks home. She reveals that she can hardly see from the tear gas. She says she has been badly beaten and feels giddy but she is going to go out again tomorrow. She asks people to support protestors because the state won’t be able to do anything if enough people speak up. A man who has pellet gun injuries pledges all the blood in his body to the young protestors. Images of pellet gun injuries are everywhere, including one stark shot of a young woman’s bare back, riddled with holes.

Iran’s protests, driven by the callous murder of a young Kurdish woman for wearing her hijab ‘improperly’, are a representation of the rage young women across the world feel as their governments and societies police what they should wear, who they should love and whether or not they can abort a foetus. Many have compared Karnataka’s hijab row and Iran—both follow the same patriarchal theme of asserting power and control over women’s lives.

The dissent may have started with the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in custody of the ‘morality police’ but now there’s also Hadis Najafi, 20, who loved to dance, and who was shot six times as she stepped into a protest after tying her hair. We are sure to hear more such names in the days to come, but if authorities believe this will scare the young women who are raising their voices, they are likely to be disappointed. All the videos I’ve seen have a sense of do-or-die, a belief that real change lies just beyond one more push and the knowledge that if this change doesn’t come, the repercussions will be terrible.

The protests are also a reminder that the world may back your fight for justice, but you’ll have to lead from the front and largely depend on your fellow countrywomen. So far, Iranian heavyweights such as A-list actors Sharareh Dolat Abadi and Amin Hayaiee, Oscar winning director Asghar Farhadi and footballer Ali Karimi have expressed solidarity with the protestors and urged the government to listen to the youth and not react violently. Elon Musk has promised them internet via a satellite after the government shut down mobile internet service. Hacker group Anonymous has disabled security cameras across Iranian cities and launched cyber attacks on government websites. And across the world, others are speaking up in support too.

The other side is represented by an ailing octogenarian, an impending succession battle, an armed paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a president who as the youngest of four members on Iran’s ‘Death Committee’ at the end of the country’s marathon war with Iraq, sanctioned the killing of thousands of political prisoners. He told 60 Minutes in an interview last month that they were ‘terrorists’.

Iran’s protest is not so much a rising against faith but a war against the custodians of faith. Like in Shaheen Bagh—or in Tunisia 12 years ago—a moment changed a country. In both cases, the spontaneity of citizens’ reaction to that moment took both sides by surprise. What happens next in Iran will impact women across the world.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.