SULIMANIAH, Iraq (AP) – Growing up in a repressive regime, Sharo, a 35-year-old university graduate, never thought she would hear words of open rebellion spoken aloud. Now she herself: “Death to the dictator!” Giving such announcements. Anger she didn’t know she was, as she joined protests calling for the country’s rulers to be overthrown.
After three weeks of protests sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody of feared ethics, anger at the authorities is growing despite the bloody crackdown that left dozens dead and hundreds detained, Sharo said.
“The situation here is tense and unstable,” she said, referring to the city of Sanandaj in the majority Kurdish home district of the same name in northwestern Iran, one of the sites of protests.
“We’re waiting for something like a time-bomb to go off,” she said, speaking to The Associated Press via the Telegram messenger service.
The anti-government protests in Sanandaj, 300 miles (500 kilometers) from the capital, are a microcosm of the leaderless protests that have rocked Iran.
Led mainly by women and youth, they have evolved from spontaneous mass gatherings in central areas to scattered demonstrations in residential areas, schools and universities as activists try to fend off an increasingly brutal crackdown.
Tensions flared again in Sanandaj on Saturday after rights watchdogs said two protesters were shot dead and several injured after protests resumed. Residents said the city has a tight security system with constant patrolling and security personnel deployed on main roads.
The Associated Press spoke with six women activists in Sanandaj who said that repressive tactics, including beatings, arrests, the use of live ammunition and Internet disruptions, have made it difficult at times to keep up the momentum. Yet protests continue, along with other expressions of civil disobedience such as professional strikes and driver honking at security forces.
Activists in the city spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from Iranian officials. Their accounts were corroborated by three human rights monitors.
Three weeks ago, news of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of morality police in Tehran spread quickly in her Kurdistan province, whose capital is Sanandaj. The response was swift in poor and historically marginalized areas.
Protesters were already filling Sanandaj’s main road as the burial began in Amini’s town of Saqqez on September 17, activists said.
People of all ages attended and chanted slogans that would be repeated in cities across Iran: “Woman. life Freedom.”
Afsanah, a 38-year-old clothing designer from Saqquez, said the Amini family was under pressure from the government to bury Mahsa quickly before a large crowd of protesters formed. She was at the burial ground that day and followed the crowd from the cemetery to the town square.
Roseanne, a 32-year-old housewife, did not know Amini personally. But when she heard that the young woman had died in the custody of the morality police in Tehran and had been arrested for violating the Islamic Republic’s hijab rules, she was forced to take to the streets that day.
“The same thing happened to me,” she said. In 2013, like Amini, she ventured to the capital with a friend when she was caught by the morality police because her abaya, or loose robe that is part of the mandatory dress code, was too short. She was taken to the same facility where Amini later died and was fingerprinted and signed a guilty plea.
“That could be me,” she said. In the years that followed, Roseanne, a former nurse, was fired from the local government health department for speaking out about her views on women’s rights.
After the funeral, she saw an old woman take a step forward and remove her scarf in a quick gesture. “I was inspired to do the same,” she said.
In the first three days after the funeral, protesters were escorted out of demonstrations in Sanandaj by arrests. By the end of the week, known activists and protest organizers were arrested.
Dunya, a lawyer, said she was one of a small group of women’s rights activists who helped organize the protest. He asked the shopkeepers to respect the call for a commercial strike on the main roads of the city.
“Almost all the women in our group are now in prison,” she said.
Internet blackouts made it difficult for protesters to communicate with each other in cities and with the outside world.
“We woke up in the morning and had no idea what was going on,” said Sharo, a university graduate. Internet occasionally returned, often late at night or during work hours, but was quickly shut down in the late afternoon, when many people gathered to protest.
A tight security presence also prevented mass gatherings.
“Almost every street has patrols and they break up groups, even if there are only two or three people walking down the street,” Sharo said.
During the protests, security forces fired pellet guns and teargas canisters at the crowd, causing many to flee. Security personnel on motorcycles also tried to disperse the crowd.
All the activists interviewed said they saw or heard live ammunition. Iranian officials have so far denied this, blaming separatist groups while verifying the use of live fire on occasion. According to the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network, the two protesters killed Saturday in Sanandaj were killed by live fire.
Protesters say fear is a close companion. The injured are often reluctant to use an ambulance or go to the hospital for fear of arrest. Activists suspected that government informants were trying to blend in with the crowd.
But the resistance continues.
“I can assure you that the protest is not over,” Sharo said. “People are angry, they’re talking to the police in a way I’ve never seen.”
Anger runs deep. In Sanandaj, the confluence of three factors made the city a ripe ground for protest activity—a history of Kurdish resistance, growing poverty, and a long history of women’s rights activism.
Human Rights Watch researcher Tara Sepehri Fars said the protests were not defined along ethnic or regional lines, although they erupted in predominantly Kurdish areas. “It’s very different in that sense,” she said.
Iran has seen waves of protests in recent years, with the biggest wave in 2009 bringing large crowds to the streets after what protesters saw as a stolen election. But the current wave of continued defiance and demands for regime change appears to be the Islamic Republic’s most serious challenge in years.
Sanandaj, like much of Iran, has suffered as US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic have ravaged the economy and fueled inflation. Far from the capital, on the country’s border, the majority of its Kurdish residents view the regime with suspicion.
In the third week, after universities and schools opened, students started holding small rallies and joined the movement.
Videos circulated on social media showed schoolgirls taking off headscarves in the street and saying: “If we don’t stand together, they will kill us one by one,” as students taunt schoolmasters.
A university student said they were planning to boycott classes altogether.
Afsana, a clothing designer, said she loves wearing headscarves. “But I’m resisting because it was never my choice.”
Fearing for her safety, her parents tried to keep her at home. But she defies them by pretending to go to work in the morning to find protest rallies around town.
“I’m angry, and I’m not afraid — we just need to get that feeling out into the streets,” she said.