Two months ago, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was visiting family in the Iranian capital of Tehran when she was arrested for wearing her hijab “inappropriately”. She was taken to a re-education centre where she was reportedly beaten by the country’s “morality police”. Three days later, she was dead.
As pictures of the aspiring lawyer in intensive care went viral, her death sparked global outrage, prompting women to take to the streets of Iran and set fire to their hijabs. Soon, what started as a protest over the death of Amini evolved into a far broader movement against the hardline theocracy that has ruled Iran for over 40 years. But while there have been numerous protests in the country over the years, what makes this one different, and perhaps so powerful, is that it’s not defined or motivated by a singular figurehead – in fact, it doesn’t have one at all.
For the nation’s government, this headless resistance presents its biggest challenge yet. As Iranian scholar Fatemeh Shams told The New Yorker: “People in the streets are not waiting for anyone to come and take the lead. They are the leaders of the revolution… It has made it very difficult for the security forces and for the government to actually suppress this movement.”
From Iran to Hong Kong, #MeToo to Black Lives Matter, leaderless movements, as Shams puts it, have become the defining form of protest in the 21st century. Born out of a frustration with the top down power structures they are fighting, the values the movements embody, whether feminism or anti-racism, are centralised over individuals.
“We have action from the bottom up, not the top down,” says 23-year-old Iranian student Leyla Ghaemi. “It works because it’s oppositional to the way in which the Republic of Iran is run – through direct force and coercion. We have seen how collective power can amass the strength in numbers that governmental forces can lack.”
In Iran, the protest movement has cut across all demographics, giving previously marginalised groups the opportunity to find a voice, with women, in particular, at the forefront. “The sense of equality from below makes us feel empowered,” Ghaemi continues. “Women make up half of the population but are hardly ever represented, whether in government or in senior positions. If at least 50 per cent of the population rally together, that’s a huge force to suppress.”
To women such as Ghaemi, the absence of a visible leader is not seen as a weakness, but a strength. Individuals who come to embody resistance movements make easy targets for governments. They also have a tendency to disappoint. That vulnerability is taken away when people are behind an ideology rather than a figurehead. After all, you can’t arrest an idea – especially when so many people believe in it.
“Despite the severe repression, regime forces are exhausted because the people are not giving in,” says Nargis, a 25 year old member of Iran’s “resistance unit” (MEK). “We will not rest until this regime is overthrown. We will continue our protests every day.”
Nargis is a student in Iran’s second biggest city, Mashhad. The regime has targeted universities, as well as schools, launching a series of attacks that have seen armed security forces storm campuses, attacking and kidnapping students from their dorms.
One of the regime’s key strategies has been to disrupt internet access across the country. But it has found it harder to fight the propaganda war against an army of tech savvy students who have found ways to bypass restrictions, using Twitter and Telegram to democratise the movement and keep international attention on the cause.
“Every day more students are joining the protests,” Nargis says. “More than 60 universities have joined the demonstrations. Protests are growing, and more cities are joining every day. Even small towns are joining the uprising.”
Of course, for many, the decentralised nature of these protests is also a method of survival – particularly in the face of such powerful security forces. Another member of the resistance unit, 25-year-old Faha, explains how government groups are going undercover to infiltrate protests.
“When the regime comes to the street, they treat it as if it is a warzone against the people while we face them empty handed,” he says. “What’s revolting to see is the extreme presence of plainclothes members of the regime who join us in the middle of the crowd, then out of the blue, they show their true colours and attack us with chains and other weapons.”
To protect its members, the resistance is made up of a spiderweb of different units who have different jobs to do and different locations they are in charge of. One unit leads on gathering intel, another on getting news of the atrocities to the outside world. Just to get these interviews, my request had to go through the network’s maze. This is also a way of keeping members of the resistance anonymous. “We had to find a way to stand against them without them being able to disperse us with their violence,” Faha says.
There is an engraving on Mahsa Amini’s tombstone. It reads: “You won’t die. Your name will become a code name.” Those words have turned out to be prophetic, as indeed, her name has become synonymous with the fight against oppression in Iran. But ultimately the movement doesn’t need a leader – the leader is their cause.