SULIMANIA, Iraq (AP) — Sharo, a 35-year-old college graduate who grew up under a repressive system, never imagined she would hear public revolt. Now she herself is chanting slogans like “Death to the dictator!” With anger she didn’t know about, she joined protests calling for the overthrow of the country’s ruler.
After three weeks of protests sparked by the death of a young woman in terrifying moral police custody, anger against authorities was rising despite a bloody crackdown that left dozens dead and hundreds detained, Sharo said.
“The situation here is tense and volatile,” she said, referring to the city of Sanandaj, a largely Kurdish city of the same name in northwestern Iran, one of the hotspots of protests.
“We’re just waiting for something to happen, like a ticking time bomb,” she told The Associated Press via the Telegram messenger service.
The anti-government protests in Sanandaji, 300 miles (500 kilometers) from the capital, epitomize the leaderless protests sweeping Iran.
Led mostly by women and youth, activists have evolved from spontaneous mass rallies in central areas to scattered demonstrations in residential areas, schools and universities, as activists try to escape an increasingly brutal crackdown.
Tensions in Sanandaj escalated again on Saturday after the rights ombudsman said two protesters were shot dead and several wounded after demonstrations resumed. Residents said there was a large security presence in the city, constant patrolling, and security guards stationed on main streets.
The Associated Press interviewed six female activists in Sanandaj, who said repressive tactics, including beatings, arrests, the use of live ammunition and internet disruptions, were sometimes difficult to maintain. However, protests and other manifestations of civil disobedience persisted, such as business strikes and drivers honking their horns at security forces.
Activists in the city spoke on condition that their full names not be released to avoid retaliation from Iranian authorities. Their claims were corroborated by three human rights monitors.
News of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Tehran’s moral police three weeks ago quickly spread throughout her home province of Kurdistan, whose capital is Sanandaj. In impoverished and historically marginalized areas, the response was swift.
On September 9, in the town of Saqqez, Amini, the funeral was underway. On the 17th, protesters had filled the main road in Sanandaj, activists said.
People of all ages were present and began chanting slogans that would be repeated in cities across Iran: “Women. Live. Freedom.”
Afsanah, a 38-year-old costume designer from Saqqez, said the Amini family had been under pressure from the government to bury Mahsa quickly before large numbers of protesters formed. She attended the funeral that day and followed the crowd from the cemetery to the town square.
Rozan, a 32-year-old housewife, doesn’t know Amini. But she felt compelled to take to the streets that day when she heard that the young woman had died in Tehran’s moral police custody and had been arrested for breaking the Islamic Republic’s hijab rules.
“The same thing happened to me,” she said. In 2013, like Amini, she ventured to the capital with friends and was arrested by the ethics police because her robe, or loose robes as part of the mandatory dress code, was too short. She was taken to the same facility where Amini later died, where she was fingerprinted and signed a guilty statement.
“It could be me,” she said. In the years since, Rozan, a former nurse, was fired from the local government health department for being too vocal about her views on women’s rights.
After the funeral, she saw an old woman step forward and quickly took off her turban. “I feel inspired to do the same,” she said.
In the first three days after the burial, protesters were driven out of demonstrations amid the arrests in Sanandaj. Over the weekend, the arrests targeted known activists and protest organizers.
Dounia, a lawyer, said she was part of a small group of women’s rights activists who helped organize the protests. They also asked shop owners to respect calls for a commercial strike on the city’s main streets.
“Almost all the women in our group are now in prison,” she said.
Internet outages have made it difficult for protesters to communicate across cities and with the outside world.
“We would wake up in the morning not knowing what was going on,” says Sharo, a college graduate. The internet comes back intermittently, usually late at night or during business hours, but cuts off quickly in the late afternoon, when many gather to protest.
A tight security presence also prevented mass gatherings.
“There are patrols on almost every street, and they separate the groups, even if there are only two or three people walking on the street,” Sharo said.
During the demonstration, security forces fired pellet guns and tear gas at the crowd, causing many to flee. Security guards on motorcycles also drove into the crowd, trying to disperse them.
All of the activists interviewed said they had either witnessed or heard live ammunition. Iranian authorities have so far denied this, blaming separatist groups after verifying the use of live ammunition. Two protesters killed Saturday in Sanandaj were killed by live ammunition, according to the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network.
Protesters say fear is a close companion. The wounded are often reluctant to use an ambulance or go to a hospital, fearing they could be arrested. Activists also suspect government informants are trying to blend in with the crowd.
But resistance continued.
“I assure you, the protests are not over,” Sharo said. “People are angry and they talk back to the police in a way I’ve never seen before.”
Anger spread to the depths. In Sanandaj, three factors conspired to make the city a ripe place for protests — a history of Kurdish resistance, rising poverty and a long history of feminist movements.
Tara Sepehri Fars, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that while the protests were sparked in predominantly Kurdish areas, they were not divided by race or region. “In that sense, it’s very unique,” she said.
Iran has seen wave after wave of protests in recent years, with the largest in 2009 bringing large crowds to the streets after protesters believed the election had been stolen. But the ongoing defiance and demands for regime change amid the current wave appear to pose the most serious challenge to the Islamic Republic in years.
Like much of Iran, Sanandaj has suffered as U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic devastated the economy and spurred inflation. Away from the capital, on the fringes of the country, most of its Kurdish residents are under suspicion from the regime.
By the third week, as colleges and schools reopened, students began holding small rallies and joining movements.
Videos circulating on social media showed students laughing at the school’s teachers, with schoolgirls taking off their hijabs in the street and chanting: “If we don’t stand together, they will kill us one by one.”
One university student said they were planning to boycott the class entirely.
Costume designer Afsanah said she likes wearing a headscarf. “But I’m protesting because it was never my choice.”
Fearing for her safety, her parents tried to persuade her to stay at home. But she disobeyed them, pretending to go to work in the morning just to find protest rallies around the city.
“I’m angry, I have no fear – we just need this feeling to flood the streets,” she said.