It May Seem Like the Iran Protests Changed Nothing. People There See It Differently.

A woman with long dark hair and "Free Iran" painted on her face holds an Iranian flag and turns back to her left.
A woman chants as she takes part in a protest against the Iranian Islamic regime on Saturday in London. Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman died one year ago in police custody. Omer Messinger/Getty Images

Nerves are high on the one-year anniversary of protests in Iran, which spanned six months following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody after being arrested for violating Iran’s mandatory headscarf law. The protests spread across distant provinces in Iran and are viewed as the most significant challenge to the country’s theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, resulting in a crackdown by security forces with hundreds of deaths and thousands of detentions.

Ahead of the anniversary, the Biden administration announced new sanctions targeting members of Iran’s security forces and entities involved in internet censorship. Meanwhile, volunteer members of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, known locally as the Basij, have already taken to the streets as President Ebrahim Raisi warned that protesters would face a “big cost.” Still, reports say weekly protests have persisted.

Donna J.N., a protester who vividly remembers taking to the streets last year, agreed to speak to me using a pseudonym about the mood a year later. Despite the perception that the protests ultimately failed, she told me, they are ongoing, and they have already changed Iran for the better. In one example, Iran’s LGBTQ+ groups joined the protests more visibly than ever before, which helped inspire Donna, a trans woman, to take the risk. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: What was it like for you once you joined in the protests? Can you tell me exactly what you saw?

Donna J.N.: I joined the protests in a small town two times. Both times, I faced chaos and a very high rate of violence from the regime’s military and police. It was very violent, but we of course expected that from them. We’ve seen so many times over the past 44 years how they react to protest. Throughout that time, I think each one of us was looking back out of our own lives and experiences living under discrimination. In Iran, you can be discriminated for your gender, your ethnic group, your gender identity, or your religion. Everyone experiences discrimination in some form, and I am no exception. I thought about my life and how difficult it is to tolerate this intolerance from the dictatorship that might one day kill me. So, I protested for my life and for people like me. It felt like we were in the process of starting a revolution, because the protesters that were brought together came from all kinds of backgrounds and had many differences, and were far more different than previous protests.

Did you jump in right away?

To be honest, I was scared. It wasn’t sudden. I thought about it and made my decision to join the protest. I tried to prepare myself. I wore extra clothes because it was autumn and it was getting cold. I also wore a face mask and glasses. I had learned from social media that I needed to protect myself and take precautions, like not bringing our cellphones and wearing dark clothes to better hide. There’s always fear, specifically when you face the military and police, who are OK with killing people. But when I joined the protest, that fear was replaced with this great feeling of unity, which helped empower me to keep pushing forward. That feeling of solidarity and unity among the people was really amazing. When we were in the streets facing the military and police, we could rely on no one except each other. We helped each other to get away from the military and to escape danger. People who knew the alleyways guided protesters to escape the military and police and dangerous situations. The people that had water gave it out after the military deployed tear gas. Some others had motorcycles, and they used them to evacuate immobilized people after they attacked us. It was the longest sustained protests in Iran since the beginning of the Islamic Republic government. I’m proud of my people.

It’s been a year since those initial protests first broke out. From the outside, it seems as if the potential for a revolution has stalled. Has anything in Iran changed since then?

Some things have changed. This summer, I noticed many women and trans people feeling more free to wear what they wanted to wear. The resistance has been kept up by these actions in our daily lives. They are still policing us, but people are acting braver than ever against them. So, things have changed. Other governments have also seen that this regime is not wanted by the people.

But the Iranian government has clamped down hard on the protests. Reports said Iranian guards used live ammunition at the time, and there have been public trials and executions of people involved in the protests. Did this have the chilling effect the government hoped it would have?

It did affect us. It made us scared and depressed. I felt diminished watching the government continue its violence with these executions. But all that violence, the arrests and killings and imprisoning, has done nothing to dampen the anger that drives people to fight against the government. For example, some women gathered together and danced. Other people publicly hugged each other and shared candies. These beautiful things are acts of protest because the government hates it. This regime, like any dictatorship, gets anxious when people are gathered together and being kind to one another. It really scares them to see people showing solidarity and unity. So, this is how we have continued to fight back against the government. It also helps us to feel optimistic against the future and gives us the confidence that we can stand on each other’s shoulders against this government.

Have any of the protesters’ goals been met?

For me, the first goal is regime change, because this regime has nothing to do with the people, and the people have nothing to do with this regime. They were never our people’s choice. But one lesson I’ve learned from my own activism is to be optimistic about every little step toward the future. Maybe we haven’t seen a big change right now. The Islamic Republic regime still remains, as you know, and we still live in a patriarchal world. But we are still fighting. And I’m sure that one day, even after I’ve died, that there will still be people who will keep on fighting. One day I’m sure we will see regime change.

What do you think will happen now?

Even if there is no protest tomorrow, the people will take to the streets again in the near future. No dictatorship lasts forever. All oppressive governments fall, and the people will always win. So, I expect one day people will gather again like they did last year against this government in huge numbers. And we will win. But what is important now is to ask ourselves what we are going to do after this regime. In addition to fighting this government, we also need to practice accepting each other despite our differences. We need to practice finding solutions by conference and tolerance of race and gender identity, because the goal is equality and freedom.

What role do you think the rest of the world should have in that?

If I have one ask of the international community, it is to listen to the people of Iran. The trans and queer communities, as well as the women of Iran, are in huge danger. This government is not the people’s government. People want freedom and democracy. Iranian people are fighting for freedom, but they need support. And the base of this support is hearing us and paying attention to us.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about the movement and what it’s like one year on?

The Islamic Republic has spread propaganda accusing protesters of being against Islam, or against a specific kind of religion, and against each other. But they don’t mention that they killed more than 90 people in Zahedan, in Baluchestan, after Friday Islamic prayer. They don’t mention that they arrested Islamic mullahs in many different towns in Kurdistan and the people that crowded the police stations to pressure the cops into releasing them. There are many other examples that show just how wrong they are in perpetuating that myth. Many people in Iran nowadays are thinking more freely, considering secularism as a means to fight religious fanaticism. So, in this situation, people are talking about tolerance between different religions that have been discriminated against, like the Baha’i community, who have systematically been robbed of their fundamental rights. When I was on the streets, I saw people from different groups, religious people, people like me who are not religious, and also people from different ethnicities, poor and rich people, all gathered together in solidarity. There is no civil war among people. There is just one war. And it’s people against the government.