What's happening in Iran and how has social media helped movement against morality police?

The country's Gen Z has used social media platforms to reach an international audience

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The use of social media platforms has enabled Iran's generation Z to defy the government and lead nationwide protests that have caught international attention, experts told The National on Wednesday.

Generation Z, colloquially known as "Zoomers", refers to those born between 1996 and 2016 and while they are known in many countries as the "always online" generation who cannot relate to their elders, this gap of understanding is perhaps even wider in Iran.

In a country that has been a strict theocracy since 1979, it is the generation from which the clerical elite is in many cases completely disconnected.

Gen Z has been a driving force behind demonstrations that erupted on September 16 after the death of 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody, demonstrations that have yet to subside.

Amini was detained for allegedly wearing a hijab in an “improper” way.

Activists and human rights groups say that at least 76 protesters have been killed by Iranian security forces during the past 11 days of unrest.

Iranian police commanders on Wednesday said they would come down hard on protesters, who are mostly women.

“Social media has been key in amplifying the voices of those inside Iran and giving the protests international attention at a time when the government is trying hard to stifle them by shutting down the internet,” said Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa region at Crisis Group.

Since the outbreak of the demonstrations the government has shut down access to the internet.

Internet watchdog Netblocks described the cuts as the most "severe internet restrictions" in Iran since the deadly crackdown on protests in November 2019, when the country experienced an unprecedented near-complete internet shutdown.

“The protests are significant in their scale, ferocity and in the role of women and the younger generation,” Ms Esfandiary told The National.

The hijab has become a symbol of how angry Iranians are but “the protests are about more than just that”, she said.

The internet cuts were followed by a stream of social media videos showing women burning their hijabs and cutting their hair. Others have been posting emotional videos under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.

Videos also showed demonstrators tearing down images of Iran's leadership, and also security forces firing on protesters.

Young Iranian are frustrated and angry with the status quo and are not afraid to voice their opinions online and push outside the red lines of the government, said Holly Dagres, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Protesters shave their heads outside New York Times building

Protesters shave their heads outside New York Times building

“Iranian Gen Z is willing to die for change,” she said.

They have “grown up with satellite dishes and (heavily filtered) social media and internet at their fingertips, which they use circumvention tools to bypass”, she said on Twitter.

Many feel disconnected with the ruling clerical establishment and feel they have nothing in common.

“As Iranian Gen Z spends a lot of time online, they see the injustices and double standards in their society and their wasted potential,” Ms Dagres said.

By taking their anger to the streets, young people are "taking control of their future in a way their parents haven't been able to".

"They're leading the protests in-person and online, saying very loud and clear that they no longer want an Islamic Republic," she said.

The use of social media platforms has enabled the protests to spread to some European cities where the Iranian diaspora has taken the streets to echo the anger and frustration of those in Iran.

Hundreds of Iranians living in the UK, France, Spain and Germany chanted slogans against the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They also urged European leaders to intervene and take a stance against Mr Khamenei's actions.

In America, dozens of young Iranians and Americans gathered in front of The New York Times building in Manhattan to demonstrate for the rights of women in Iran.

Some were seen shaving their heads in an act of defiance against the death of Amini.

Amini's death has drawn widespread international condemnation, while Iran has blamed "thugs" linked to "foreign enemies" for the unrest.

Tehran has accused the US and the aforementioned European countries of using the unrest to try to destabilise the country.

Updated: June 13, 2023, 11:21 AM