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Iran's government is struggling to control growing women's rights protests

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Women, life, freedom - those are the cries of Iranian women who continue to call for change across their country. The protests were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died while she was in custody by Iran's so-called morality police. The anti-regime protests are the biggest in at least a decade, and more than three weeks in, they continue to grow - this despite reports from Amnesty International and other human rights groups that Iran's security forces are beating protesters, arresting them, firing live ammunition into groups.

Golnaz Esfandiari covers Iran for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. She's back with us now. Golnaz, welcome.

GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So this weekend saw sights that would have been unthinkable in Iran just a few weeks ago - schoolgirls in the streets of Tehran whipping off their headscarves and waving them around.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOMEN PROTESTING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Golnaz, explain - what are they chanting there, and what struck you this weekend?

ESFANDIARI: They were chanting death to the dictator, which has been one of the chants of the current protests in Iran. I must say, I was surprised that the protests are going on despite a brutal state crackdown. According to Amnesty International, at least 52 people have been killed. Many people have been arrested. And today, the Iranian Society for the Rights of Children said that 28 children at least have been killed during the past three weeks. But despite the use of force, people are still taking to the streets, and the protests have spread to universities and to high schools. It seems that it's not dying out for now.

KELLY: No. In fact, the contrary - it's getting bigger, not smaller. Does it almost feel like you are watching a generation - perhaps a couple of generations - learn how to do civil disobedience in Iran?

ESFANDIARI: Yes. You know, I grew up in Iran, and we would resist the regime, the establishment, but in a very different way, and we were scared. But this generation, we're seeing - they're fearless. There was a video when, in a school, they brought a member of the Basij to - basically to speak to the young girls, and...

KELLY: This is the Basij - we should explain, this is a particularly hard-line wing of Iran's security forces.

ESFANDIARI: Yes. It's a paramilitary force, and it's been involved in state repression in the past and probably currently also.

KELLY: Yeah.

ESFANDIARI: So they brought this member of the Basij to a school. And the girls reacted by removing their headscarves and chanting death to the dictator and telling him to get lost. So the scenes we're seeing are amazing.

Or, over the weekend, the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, visited the all-female Alzahra University. And there were scenes of students chanting, you know, get lost and, you know, we don't want a murderer here. It's incredible.

KELLY: Sounds like it's hard to process for somebody who's grown up there, how these things are unfolding and so quickly. I want to ask about one notable thing from the early days of these protests has been - there doesn't seem to be a leader. Is one emerging? Is anyone coordinating this?

ESFANDIARI: No. These protests are - so far, they have been leaderless. And maybe this is a strength of the current protest because, you know, it gets harder for the regime to basically decapitate the movement.

KELLY: So what are you watching for in terms of the regime's next move since dispersing people by force, beating up protesters, arresting protesters is not causing people to shut up and stay home?

ESFANDIARI: Well, this regime could use even greater force we know that they're capable of. So we're basically watching to see what they're planning to do to sort of end the protest. But even if they manage to end the protest tomorrow, I would say that the anger is not going away. And I think that the use of force, the use of lethal force is fueling more anger because people - you cannot remain indifferent when you see that they're killing young kids in the streets. So whoever watches these scenes gets angrier and angrier.

KELLY: That's Golnaz Esfandiari. She covers Iran from outside Iran for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Great to talk to you again. Thanks.

ESFANDIARI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.