Iran has shut down the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan and blocked access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp in a bid to curb a growing protest movement that has relied on social media to document the dissent.
The protests, sparked on September 16 after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody, show no signs of abating. On Thursday, protesters torched police stations and vehicles in several towns.
It comes as anti-regime protests spread across cyberspace, with videos of women burning their hijabs going viral. Other women have posted emotional videos in which they cut their hair in protest under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.
Mahsa Amini was arrested on September 16 for allegedly wearing the hijab in an “inappropriate” manner. Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, had been fatally hit in the head, a claim denied by officials, who announced an investigation. Police continue to claim she died of natural causes, but her family suspects she was beaten and tortured.
Iranian state media reported that on Wednesday street rallies had spread to 15 cities, with police using tear gas and making arrests to disperse crowds of up to 1,000 people.
In southern Iran, video footage purportedly from Wednesday showed protesters setting fire to a giant image on the side of a building of General Qassem Soleimani, the revered commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who was killed in a 2020 US strike in Iraq.
Demonstrators threw stones at security forces, set fire to police vehicles and garbage cans 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 northwest Tabriz, central Qazvin and northeast Mashhad.
A fourth member of the security forces has died in the southern city of Shiraz, Iranian news agencies reported, adding that a protester was stabbed to death in Qazvin, adding to the six protester deaths already announced by officials. .
Iranian authorities have denied any involvement in the deaths of protesters.
Amnesty International said it recorded the deaths of eight people – six men, a woman and a child – four of whom were shot dead by security forces at point-blank range with metal pellets.
The protests are among the most serious in Iran since the November 2019 unrest over rising fuel prices.
“Internet shutdowns should be understood as an extension of the violence and repression happening in physical space,” said Azadeh Akbari, a cybersurveillance researcher at the University of Twente, the Netherlands. “Social media is key to mobilizing protesters, not only to coordinate rallies but also to amplify acts of resistance.
“You see a woman standing without her hijab in front of the counter-insurgency police, which is very brave. If a video of this comes out, suddenly it’s not just one person doing this, women in all different cities are doing the same thing.
“Women, life, freedom,” the words that could be heard at Amini’s funeral, were repeated by protesters across the country, including in a video showing young women burning their hijabs while male protesters battle security forces. The video received over 30,000 views on Twitter.
In another video, an Iranian woman sings a hymn to fallen youth while cutting her hair with household scissorswhich has amassed over 60,000 views.
“[The videos] have one hundred percent value,” a young Iranian Twitter user told the Guardian, adding that while the protests had not reached her hometown, she had been able to participate in opposition activities online. “I am sad that my compatriots in other parts of Iran have taken to the streets and are fighting against this regime for all our rights. And I can’t do anything but share information online.
She added that videos showing police brutality towards protesters are inspiring people in different cities to take action.
“It is very difficult for the regime to control the videos that come out. A lot of people don’t post them on social media but post them in WhatsApp groups etc. Manifestations are taking place simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space.
Social media has long been one of the main tools of anti-regime activity, as public spaces are closely guarded by security forces. “Platforms like Instagram have become the virtual street, where we can come together to protest, because it was not possible to do so in real life,” said Shaghayegh Norouzi, an Iranian activist against gender-based violence who lives in exile in Spain.
Norouzi said that although she has been able to keep in touch with activists in Tehran, she is afraid of future internet blackouts and what they could mean for activists’ safety.
“During the last demonstrations [2017-2019], the government shut down the internet for days. During this time protesters have been killed and arrested,” she said. “Protesters are also using the internet to organize. They can call each other and say when they are in danger or warn each other.
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards called for justice to prosecute “those who spread false news and rumours” in a statement released Thursday.
Amini’s death and arrest came amid a government crackdown on women’s rights. On August 15, Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi signed an executive order that, among other measures, increases penalties for women who post anti-hijab content online.
While targeting women’s rights, Akbari says the government is strengthening its cyber regime. She worries that the continued internet outages could be used to facilitate the expansion of Iran’s national internet, which is cut off from the rest of the world.
“This is a very dangerous plan that would see the regime completely cut Iran off from the global internet in the near future,” she said. “This would allow the regime to control cyberspace while monitoring physical space and developing ubiquitous control machinery.”
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