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What Iranian protesters are fighting for

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Look no further than Iran for what one life can accomplish even in death. It's been just over three weeks since Jina Amini, known as Mahsa, died after being detained by Iran's morality police. Her country is now rocked by ongoing demonstrations and calls for changes to the country's strict legal code. NPR's D. Parvaz has been talking with some of the protesters and has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWITTER VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

D PARVAZ, BYLINE: This is the sound of change in Iran. That's a clip on Twitter of Iranian schoolgirls shouting, death to the dictator, as they rip off headscarves and chant against Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Scenes like this are happening across Iran in dozens of cities. The symbol of the protests, like Amini herself, is the hijab, and it has unified men and women, the secular and the devout.

F: (Speaking non-English language).

PARVAZ: Hatred. That's the word a 40-year-old educator uses when asked why she joined the protests. The woman we'll call F. wears a hijab by choice but hates forcing it on others. We reached protesters in Iran via digital phone calls and identify them by their first names or initials because it's dangerous for Iranians to speak out.

F: (Speaking non-English language).

PARVAZ: F. wants Islam to be seen as a progressive faith, one that respects choice. She says she's horrified at what she's seen on the streets.

F: (Speaking non-English language).

PARVAZ: It started with batons, but as the crowds grew, the government response intensified. Twenty-five-year-old university student M. has experienced that response firsthand.

M: I've seen police attacking people, shooting at people, beating people. I myself was both shot at and beaten.

PARVAZ: Footage posted online shows security forces, uniformed and plain-clothed, beating unarmed protesters and dragging them away. That's why the international community must weigh in, says Gissou Nia, who focuses on human rights violations and international crimes at the Atlantic Council. She says the U.N. should schedule a special session demanding an investigative mechanism to be established for Iran.

GISSOU NIA: It would be a centralized body that collects information and evidence of the state's violent crackdown on protesters and other human rights violations.

PARVAZ: The U.N. has taken such steps for accountability before, for instance, in Myanmar. On Friday, the U.S. State Department said it would continue to coordinate with allies on a response to Iran's, quote, "bloody crackdowns." But for protesters to maintain momentum, they need to be seen and heard outside of Iran. And Nia, herself an Iranian American, emphasizes that's difficult when some digital platforms used in the West are inaccessible to those in Iran.

NIA: Iranian users are then forced to move on to the Iranian state equivalents of those services, and the Iranian state equivalents often have mechanisms to surveil these people.

PARVAZ: The constant surveillance and stringent controls, repression of minority rights, along with the regime's harsh response to even small infractions, has fueled these protests. They're not just about the hijab, clarifies another protester named Hossein (ph), who's 35. His audio is shaky, but he says people are in the streets for one reason.

HOSSEIN: To change the whole system that suppress them.

PARVAZ: But, he adds, to the regime, the mandatory hijab is an important symbol, and its eradication is seen as an existential threat to the state. And their response to that threat, says Hossein, is a, quote, "stupid mistake."

HOSSEIN: In my opinion, the regime is stupid. They don't want to come back even once, that just as a show, they can do something to make people calm, but they don't even do that.

PARVAZ: The failure to keep things calm has been consequential. There are unconfirmed reports of 3,000 arrests, and while estimates of the number killed vary, Amnesty International reports at least 82 deaths in one province alone. Iran's news agencies have also reported at least 10 deaths among security forces, casualties which also set these protests apart, says M.

M: People are not scared. This is a new thing. People don't feel they have too much to lose.

PARVAZ: But protests don't last forever, so activists like M are looking at what else might put pressure on the government, like a labor strike in the oil industry because oil revenue funds much of the regime. Right now, M feels this moment could be truly transformative but doesn't see that reflected in much of the international coverage the way he's seen with other uprisings.

M: This is not too dissimilar to what happened in Tahrir Square in Egypt 10 years ago. And I remember that. There were daily coverage, if not hourly coverage of that.

PARVAZ: But within Iran right now, many expect change to be incremental.

F: (Speaking non-English language).

PARVAZ: F. says, a girl who is two or three years old now should be able to choose whether to wear a hijab by the time she's in school. The 1979 Islamic Revolution was years in the making, and changes to the Islamic republic will also take time. Toppling the regime isn't necessarily the goal for all protesters. And, says M., any easing of restrictions would be welcome by Iranians.

M: If we get to a place where we get more freedom for women, if we get to a place where we get other single freedoms, that's amazing. You know, just a revolution is not the only thing that matters.

PARVAZ: D. Parvaz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz is an editor at Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, she worked at several news organizations covering wildfires, riots, earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, elections, political upheaval and refugee crises in several countries.