Mahsa is a DPhil student at the OII. Her research focuses on political communication and information controls in Iran.
Before my family left Iran, they lived in a flat in a well-known and sprawling urban complex. Many of my family and friends continue to live there. I have childhood memories from the summers I spent playing with other kids and cousins but now, almost everyday, this complex has been featured in protest footage out of Iran.
The other night the building was being attacked by armed Basij forces (Iran’s paramilitary forces). As residents chanted their opposition and wish for the end of the Islamic Republic from their windows and balconies, the Basij shot tear gas at homes, while one Basiji militiamen screamed at the residents: ‘I will kill my own children for this nezam (regime); I will kill you… Come down and chant downstairs.’
I was not able to make contact with my friends and family on that particular night, but the video found a pocket of connectivity to find its way onto social media. It was only the next morning that the connections for those I knew returned and I was assured they were unharmed -at least physically.
Beyond using the internet to connect to my loved ones, as a scholar of the internet, I know what a crucial role it is playing in the current movement, sometimes referred to as the 2022 Revolution.
The internet is crucial, especially in the absence of independent media. Working with the independent human rights and internet researcher Marcus Michaelsen, in a paper on media accountability in Iran, we reported earlier this year there is no independent media in Iran. Even accredited foreign correspondents have deeply controlled access and are forbidden from protest areas. Everything we know about protests and human rights abuses in Iran relies on the internet. And the disruptions and shutdowns of the internet have become all but common practice for authorities.
Following and researching the sophisticated technology being developed for digital repression is part of my DPhil research at the Oxford Internet Institute. It is essential to understand the methods used in infrastructure and governance for internet shutdowns as well as the legality of their actions under international human rights law that I have been involved in documenting and researching in my work for the freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE19. Further work I’ve contributed to by Amnesty International has shown the Islamic Republic’s shutdowns as part of the wider apparatus of crimes against life during the 2019 protests – as well as the actions of the Islamic Republic’s security forces against the background of darkness.
In the years since November 2019, we have been monitoring the new trajectory for online controls. This has included the frameworks of the User Protection Bill. This Bill, which ironically works to erode user protection online, is trying to streamline new censorship techniques such as criminalising and disabling circumvention tools or censoring all remaining foreign internet services that refuse to cooperate with the state.
While the Bill has not officially passed, many elements are being “quietly” implemented. Wide scale censorship of even the remaining foreign internet services such as Instagram, WhatsApp, Gmail, or even online gaming has meant there has been a far stronger reliance on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) during protests. However, evidence has emerged that technologies like sophisticated deep packet inspection to disable the protocols of VPNs are being actively used by authorities to make access to the internet even more difficult. The impact can be seen along with mobile internet curfews and even localised internet shutdowns in places, such as Kurdistan and Sistan and Baluchistan, where protests have been brutally repressed.
But on a level beyond digital repression, the internet has a deeper meaning within the culture of these protests. Iran’s zoomers, or Gen Z, the age group spanning from the pre-teens up to their mid-twenties have been taking centre stage in Iran.
Jhina Amini, a Iranian-Kurdish woman of 22, now known to the world with the Persian name Mahsa, was killed after receiving blunt force trauma to the head while detained by Iran’s so-called “morality police” on 16 September. The protests ignited almost immediately outside her hospital in Tehran and spread to the rest of the country. While the mandatory hijab sparked the outrage, the grievances of these protests go deeper against the tyranny of the Islamic Republic and the desire to dismantle it.
By now you may have heard some of the names of the young women and girls lost in the aftermath of the killing of Amini. Hadis Najafi was a 23-year-old protester killed by multiple gunshot wounds. Her TikTok page lives on with her image as a young woman with a joy for life, singing and dancing. Sarina Esmaelizadeh, a 16-year-old student protester, beaten to death by security forces, lives on in her YouTube vlogs. The deep digital footprints this generation of victims of the Islamic Republic’s brutality have left behind are a haunting reminder of the power of this generation’s protests and their deep disaffection.
Over a month ago, we arrived at forty days -or the “chehelom” – of mourning the murder of Jhina Amini. In Iranian tradition, cheheloms are an important milestone in grief. In Iranian political tradition, cheheloms of protesters have often been marked by more protests.
While this was the first time that the issue of mandatory hijab sparked nationwide protests since the revolution, this was not the first-time protests have been ignited against the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is, however, the first time we have seen protests sustain for such a prolonged period of time. Especially amongst such a diverse demographic of Iranians -the biggest of which of course, are gen z and women.
As the mass protests, or the revolution, continues, tragically more deaths continue. The now detained activist rapper Toumaj Salehi said before his arrest in Iran, “everyday is a chehelom”. And so this cycle of mourning and protests continue. Almost everyday we learn of a new death, typically during the daily burials or chehelom’s bringing protests together. All the while, Iran’s youth keep screaming one of the most popular rhyming chants: “everyone one of us you kill, a thousand more of us stand behind them!”