Iran has shut off the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan, and blocked access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, in an attempt to curb a growing protest movement that has relied on social media to document dissent.
The protests, which were sparked on 16 September after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody, show no sign of subsiding. On Thursday, protesters torched police stations and vehicles in several cities.
This comes as anti-regime demonstrations spilled into cyberspace, with videos of women burning their hijabs going viral. Other women have been posting emotional videos in which they cut their hair in protest under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.
Mahsa Amini was detained on 16 September for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an “improper” way. Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, had suffered a fatal blow to the head, a claim denied by officials, who have announced an investigation. Police continue to maintain that she died of natural causes, but her family suspect that she was subjected to beating and torture.
In response to her death, the US placed Iran’s morality police on its sanctions blacklist on Thursday.
The US Treasury said the morality police were “responsible” for Amini’s death as it announced the sanctions “for abuse and violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters”.
Iranian state media reported that by Wednesday street rallies had spread to 15 cities, with police using teargas and making arrests to disperse crowds of up to 1,000 people.
In southern Iran, video footage purportedly from Wednesday showed demonstrators setting fire to a gigantic picture on the side of a building of general Qassem Soleimani, the revered Revolutionary Guards commander, who was killed in a 2020 US strike in Iraq.
Demonstrators hurled stones at security forces, set fire to police vehicles and bins and chanted anti-government slogans, the official Irna news agency said.
On Thursday, Iranian media said three militiamen “mobilized to deal with rioters” were stabbed or shot dead in the north-western city of Tabriz, the central city of Qazvin and Mashhad in the north-east of the country.
A fourth member of the security forces died in the southern city of Shiraz, Iranian news agencies reported, adding that a protester was stabbed to death in Qazvin, adding to six protester deaths already announced by officials.
The Iranian authorities have denied any involvement in the deaths of protesters.
Amnesty International said it had recorded the deaths of eight people – six men, one woman and a child – with four shot by security forces at close range with metal pellets.
The protests are among the most serious in Iran since November 2019 unrest over fuel price rises.
“The internet shutdowns must be understood as an extension of the violence and repression that is happening in physical space,” said Azadeh Akbari, a researcher of cybersurveillance at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands. “Social media is existential to the mobilization of protesters, not only to coordinate gatherings but also to amplify acts of resistance.
“You see a woman standing without her hijab in front of the anti-insurgency police, which is very courageous. If a video of this comes out, it’s suddenly not just one person doing this, women in all the different cities are doing the same.”
“Women, life, freedom”, the words which could be heard at Amini’s funeral, have been repeated by protesters across the country, including in a video which shows young women burning their hijabs while male protesters fight off security forces. The video has received over 30,000 views on Twitter.
In a different video, an Iranian woman sings a hymn to fallen youth as she cuts her hair with household scissorswhich has amassed more than 60,000 views.
“[The videos] are a hundred percent valuable,” one young Twitter user from Iran told the Guardian, adding that while the protests had not reached her home town, she had been able to participate in opposition activity online. “I am sad that my compatriots in other parts of Iran have come to the streets and are fighting against this regime for all our rights. And I can’t do anything except share information online.”
She added that videos showing police brutality towards protesters were motivating people in different cities to take action.
“It is very difficult for the regime to control the videos coming out. Many people don’t post them on social media, but circulate them within WhatsApp groups, etc. The demonstrations are happening simultaneously in cyberspace and in the physical space.”
Social media has long been one of the key tools for anti-regime activity, as public spaces are closely policed by security forces. “Platforms like Instagram became the virtual street, where we can gather to protest, because it was not possible to do that in real life,” said Shaghayegh Norouzi, an Iranian campaigner against gender-based violence who has been living in exile in Spain.
Norouzi said that while she had been able to keep in touch with activists in Tehran, she was afraid of future internet blackouts and what they could mean for the safety of activists.
“During the last protests [2017-2019], the government cut off the internet for days at a time. During that time, protesters were killed and arrested,” she said. “Protesters are also using the internet to organize themselves. They can call each other and say when they are in danger or warn each other.”
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps called on the judiciary to prosecute “those who spread false news and rumours” in a statement published on Thursday.
Amini’s death came amid a governmental crackdown on women’s rights. On 15 August, Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, signed a decree which, among other measures, increased the punishment for women posting anti-hijab content online.
Speaking at a briefing with some western reporters on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, Raisi said the circumstances of Amini’s death were under investigation.
The early signs from the investigation showed there had been no beatings or violence that led to her death, he said. “All signs point to a heart attack or brain stroke,” he said, but he stressed “that is not the final determination”.
He said deaths by police violence had occurred hundreds of times in the US, and also in the UK.
Akbari said that at the same time as targeting women’s rights, the Iranian government was tightening its cyber-regime. She fears that continued internet blackouts could be used to facilitate an expansion of the Iranian national internet, which is cut off from the rest of the world.
“This is a very dangerous plan, which would see the regime completely cut off Iran from the global internet in the near future,” she said. “This would allow the regime to control cyberspace along with policing the physical space, and develop an all-pervasive machinery of control.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Wintour in New York