Protests erupted across the country after 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s death on September 16, following her arrest by morality policy for “improperly” wearing her headscarf. Since then, dozens of videos posted online show schoolgirls protesting in their schools and in the streets, chanting, waving, and burning their head coverings.
But the risk schoolgirls face can be deadly. Nika Shakarami was 16 when she burned her headscarf at a Tehran protest. She was last seen alive on September 20 being followed by security forces. The government claims she fell from a building, the same fate of another protester, Sarina Esmailzadeh, also 16, who allegedly fell to her death in Karaj, west of the capital on September 24. According to media reports, both families were pressured not to contradict the official story.
As of October 11, the Iran-based Society to Support Children claims that 28 children have been killed during the protests, most in Sistan and Baluchistan province, and nine children have been named by rights groups and media outlets as having been killed by security forces. Human Rights Watch has not independently documented these cases, but the reports raise grave concerns. UNICEF has called for an end to the violence against children.
The deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps stated on October 5 that “the average age of most people detained during the protests is 15.”
Yet the deadly repression appears to have fueled outrage among the younger population. Videos circulated on social media show that in Saqez, the home of Mahsa Amini, scores of schoolgirls marched through the streets in protest, while girls in Karaj crowded a man – evidently an official – out of their school gate, chanting “Dishonorable.” In another video posted on Twitter, schoolgirls remove their head coverings and chant against a man who appears to be a member of the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary force that is part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who had come to the school to speak about the Mahsa Amini protests.
Senior officials claim that youth have been “trapped” by exposure to the internet, but videos posted online indicate the schoolgirls’ stand is earning solidarity: men and women are seen joining them, and boys are burning headscarves too.
In a country where expressing autonomy as a woman can result in death, the actions of these schoolgirls to demand freedom and equality is heart-stoppingly brave. The Iranian authorities should heed their demands, ensure their safety and security, prevent security forces from entering schools to intimidate or arrest students, and immediately release all children arrested for peaceful protests.