Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (AP) – Raised under a repressive regime, Sharu, a 35-year-old college graduate, never thought she would hear the words of an open rebellion spoken out loud. Now she herself is chanting slogans such as “Death to the dictator!” Angrily unaware of its existence, she joined the protests demanding the overthrow of the country’s rulers.
After three weeks of protests, sparked by the murder of a young woman in the custody of the fearsome morality police, anger at the authorities is mounting, despite a bloody crackdown that has left dozens dead and hundreds in detention, Sharo said.
“The situation here is tense and volatile,” she said, referring to the city of Sanandaj in the Kurdish-majority region of the same name in northwest Iran, one of the hotbeds of protests.
“We’re just waiting for something to happen, like a ticking time bomb,” she said, speaking to the Associated Press via the Telegram messenger service.
Anti-government protests in Sanandaj, 300 miles (500 kilometers) from the capital, are a microcosm of the unleashed protests that have engulfed Iran.
Led largely by women and youth, they have evolved from spontaneous mass rallies in central regions to sporadic demonstrations in residential areas, schools and universities as activists attempt to evade an increasingly brutal crackdown.
Tensions escalated again on Saturday in Sanandaj after rights monitors said two protesters were killed and several others injured, following the resumption of demonstrations. Residents said there was a heavy security presence in the city, with constant patrols and security personnel on the main streets.
The Associated Press spoke to six activists in Sanandaj who said methods of repression, including beatings, arrests, use of live ammunition and internet disruptions sometimes make it difficult to maintain the momentum. However, protests continued, along with other manifestations of civil disobedience, such as business strikes and drivers honking horns at security forces.
Activists in the city spoke on condition that their full names be withheld for fear of retaliation by the Iranian authorities. Their accounts were confirmed by three human rights monitors.
Three weeks ago, the news of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police in Tehran spread quickly throughout her home province of Kurdistan, of which Sanandaj is the capital. The response was quick in the poor and historically marginalized region.
Activists said that while the burial was underway in the town of Amini in Saqqaz on September 17, protesters were already filling the main road in Sanandaj.
People of all ages were present and began chanting slogans that are repeated in cities across Iran: “Woman. Life. Freedom.”
Afsaneh, a 38-year-old clothing designer from Saqqaz, said the Amini family was pressured by the government to quickly bury Mahsa before a critical mass of protesters formed. She was at the burial that day and followed the crowds 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 felt compelled to take to the street that day.
“The same thing happened to me,” she said. In 2013, like Amini, I ventured to the capital with a friend when the morality police arrested her because her abaya, or the baggy dress that is part of the mandatory dress code, was too short. She was taken to the same facility where Amini later died, had her fingerprints taken and forced to sign a guilty plea.
“It could have been me,” she said. In the years that followed, Roseanne, 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 elderly woman taking a step forward and with a quick gesture taking off her veil. “I felt inspired to do the same,” she said.
In the first three days after the burial, protesters were pulled out of the demonstrations in combing arrests in Sanandaj. By the end of the week, arrests had targeted well-known activists and protest organizers.
Donia, a lawyer, said she was one of a small group of women’s rights activists who helped organize the protests. They also asked shopkeepers to respect the call for a commercial strike along the main city streets.
“Almost all the women in our group are in prison right now,” she said.
The internet outage made it difficult for protesters to communicate with each other across cities and with the outside world.
“We would wake up in the morning and have no idea what was going on,” said Sharu, a university graduate. The internet would come back intermittently, often late at night or during business hours, but it cuts off quickly in the late afternoon, a time when many had gathered to protest.
The heavy security presence also prevented mass gatherings.
“There are patrols on almost every street, and they break up groups, even if two or three people are walking down the street,” Sharow said.
During the demonstrations, security forces fired shotguns and tear gas into the crowd, causing many to flee. Security personnel on motorbikes also stormed the crowd in an attempt to disperse them.
All of the activists interviewed said they either saw or heard live ammunition. Iranian authorities have so far denied this, blaming separatist groups on occasions where the use of live ammunition has been verified. The two protesters killed on Saturday in Sanandaj were both shot dead, according to the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network.
Protesters say fear is a close companion. The wounded were often reluctant to use ambulances or go to hospitals for fear of arrest. Activists also suspected that government informants were trying to blend in with the crowds.
But the acts of resistance continued.
“I assure you, the protests are not over,” Sharo said. “People are angry, they are responding to the police in ways I’ve never seen before.”
The anger is deep. In Sanandaj, the confluence of three factors has made the city a ripe ground for protest activism – a history of Kurdish resistance, rising poverty, and a long history of women’s rights activism.
Tara Sepehri Faris, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the protests were not identified along ethnic or regional lines even though they erupted in a Kurdish-majority area. “It was very unique in that sense,” she said.
There have been waves of protests in Iran in recent years, the largest in 2009, which led to large crowds taking to the streets after what protesters felt was a stolen election. But the ongoing defiance and demands for regime change during the current wave seem to pose the most serious challenge to the Islamic Republic in years.
Like much of Iran, Sanandaj has suffered due to US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated the economy and led to inflation. Far from the capital, on the outskirts of the country, the regime views its Kurdish-majority population with suspicion.
By the third week, with universities and schools opening, students began to organize small gatherings and joined the movement.
Videos circulated on social media showing students mocking school teachers, school girls taking off their headscarves in the street and chanting: “One by one they will kill us, if we don’t stand together.”
One undergraduate said they were planning to boycott classes altogether.
Afsaneh, the clothing designer, said she loves to wear the hijab. “But I protest because it was never my choice.”
Her parents, fearing for her safety, tried to persuade her to stay at home. But she defied them, pretending to go to work in the morning only to look for protest rallies around town.
“I’m angry, I’m fearless – we just need that feeling to flood the street,” she said.