Gen Z Leads the Fight for Freedom in Iran

By honoring the memory of 22-year-old Masha Amini, young protestors are fighting to remake a government and a society.

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“Jina, dear! You will not die. Your name will turn into a symbol,” Mahsa Amini’s tombstone reads. Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, was arrested and likely beaten to death in September when the country’s religious police found her without a head covering, a violation of Iranian state dress code. 

At first, they brought Amini to a re-education center, where she later died. The government said Amini died of a heart attack, but Amini’s family rejects the idea as she was not suffering from any underlying illness. Witnesses have attested to severe police brutality.

After Amini’s hospitalization and death, protests swept Iran, and later the world. Iranian women have taken to the streets without their hijabs, cutting off their hair mid-march. The youth chant, “We are the children of war. Come on and fight, and we’ll fight back.”

Disapproval of the Iranian government is rising and young people are leading the push for change.  The strict morality police are at the root of protesters’ frustrations, but anger about Iran’s economic problems, Western sanctions and global isolation have further motivated the movement. Gen Z has proven resilient throughout the protests, some are even joining the political system and earning the respect of older generations. The reformist Union of Nation Party is made up mostly of 15 to 25-year-olds. Disillusionment with the government had already activated the youth, and Amini is their heroine.

Young Americans have much to learn from the rising power of young voices in Iran as they fight to define and protect their freedom of expression. While the pursuit of justice still has a long way to go in the West, the Iranian uprising reminds us of the rights and responsibilities we’ve been granted to express and defend our personal beliefs, and to protest those we deem unfair. 

Universities are among the few spaces in Iran where young people can express political thoughts, even though there are strict restrictions on campus gatherings. The protests mark the country’s first major student movement in a decade. Students demanded an official government apology and the release of detained students while braving beatings and plastic bullets. Hundreds have been detained by authorities, and over a hundred people have died so far

Gen Z is Iran’s first generation to grow up with the internet, and they have used their digital skills to amplify the rebellion to a scale never before seen. Many Iranians now argue that if the government has rejected reform ever since it came into power, then they must be replaced altogether. The Iranian government blames the protests on foreign powers, but Gen Z has consistently fought the regime.

The movement to reform Iran’s government is not an attack on Islam. Like the protestors, Iranian clerics are against the government’s violence. The protests are non-violent — they only aim to reclaim women’s bodies and secure fundamental freedoms. The heart of this movement is in the streets — there is no single leader, only a community of protestors

With no central figure to attack, the Iranian government has tried to suppress the people at large, disconnecting them from each other. The government has cut off Internet access to interfere with the spread of protests. They implemented a mobile curfew at 4 pm and blocked WhatsApp and Instagram servers. Protestors have reported difficulties sending or seeing photos. 

Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, compounded this censorship by deleting protest posts, stating the content as a violation of community guidelines. On the opposite end, Google, Signal, and WhatsApp have tried setting up proxies to make their platforms accessible to Iranians. The US has authorized sanctions in defense of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The Senate is also considering a bill that protects global internet access

Movements in the modern age happen on the streets and the Internet. As the comedian and political commentator Hasan Minhaj puts it, because of the internet, dictators can hear our voices, our criticisms, our revolts. But, while social media gives new power to protestors, it has also been manipulated by both sides. Bots can be used to dominate a hashtag or spread lies about protests. 

Still, social media has helped protestors spread awareness of the movement. A song in honor of Amini has been sung at protests worldwide and received close to 100,000 Grammy nominations for the social change category.

If you want to read more about Iranian history, I recommend the memoir Persepolis, which focuses on the Iranian Revolution from the perspective of a teenager. To get involved, you can donate to relief organizations, engage on social media, and keep up-to-date with news. Above all, when we appreciate and use our right to freedom of expression as Americans, we can both honor and further propel Amini’s memory. Protestors aren’t just fighting against strict dress codes: They’re making a demand for freedom, living a life of choice. As the protests rage on, there is a chant dominating the crowd. Amini’s death reveals what really is at risk: “Women, Life, Freedom.”

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