September 16, 2023, marks exactly one year since the life of Mahsa (Jini) Amini was cut short while in the custody of Iran’s so-called “morality police” – an event that ignited historic women-led protests in the name of “Woman, Life, Freedom,” and opened the world’s eyes to how the Iranian regime mercilessly and unyieldingly crushes dissent. But a year on, the flames of resistance still burn bright, despite ongoing efforts by Iranian authorities to expand their brutal repression both online and offline.
Expanding internet shutdowns to squash dissent
In recent years, internet shutdowns have become a preferred means for Iran’s authoritarian rulers to silence and suppress their critics. Their use surged in the wake of the Mahsa Amini protests; in 2022, authorities imposed an alarming total of 18 internet shutdowns, compared with five shutdowns in 2021.
This alarming upward trend has continued into 2023, disrupting the daily lives of people in Iran, and limiting political mobilization and protests.
Shutdowns continue to impact the entire nation, severing access to the global internet and disrupting mobile networks. Persistent blocks on Instagram and WhatsApp have exacerbated the situation, significantly hindering protest coordination and documentation. The impact is most acutely felt by ethnic minorities groups, such as the people living in the Sistan and Baluchestan provinces. Here, recurring shutdowns have become as much of a ritual as Friday prayers, with authorities deploying weekly-curfew style shutdowns.
The Iranian regime’s unwavering determination to silence any opposition by hitting the kill switch further reinforces how internet shutdowns have become the regime’s favorite authoritarian tactic. Internet shutdowns are now synonymous with ominous chapters in Iran’s recent history, implying human rights abuses, the stifling of dissenting voices, and a deepening atmosphere of fear and silence.
Biometric surveillance: a tool to police women’s bodies
In recent months, reports have emerged that the Iranian regime has fortified its mass surveillance capabilities, installing surveillance cameras in public spaces, including facial recognition technologies, to track and target women who do not comply with the country’s restrictive hijab rules. According to a statement from the Iranian police, the increase of mass surveillance was aimed at “preventing resistance against the hijab law.”
Since Mahsa Amini’s death, many women in Iran have publicly removed their veil as a show of resistance, to defy compulsory hijab laws and protest the regime’s policing and control of their bodies. Women caught on camera violating the hijab rules are warned of the consequences (such as their cars being confiscated) by text message; and the Iranian traffic police spokesperson has boasted about sending such text messages to one million women in the past four months alone. According to Iran’s Minister of Interior, women who persist in disregarding the public hijab requirement will be denied access to public venues and services. Hundreds of businesses have allegedly been shut down for failing to enforce these rules, with non-compliant women barred from universities, public transport, and banks.
The Iranian Parliament is currently discussing a draconian “Chastity and Hijab Bill,” which considers it “nudity” for women and girls to not wear hijab; this would include failing to wear a headscarf or wearing thin or light clothes in public, but also on social media. Women found guilty under the new law could face travel restrictions and be banned from using the internet from between six months to two years. Coupled with the increasing use of biometric surveillance tools, this would unlock a new, dystopian level for policing women’s bodies and behavior in Iran.
Taking action to honor Mahsa Amini
As the anniversary of her death and subsequent protests approaches, we must not forget Mahsa Amini. It is vital that the world honor her memory by standing with the people of Iran, and standing up to Iranian authorities’ ongoing human rights abuses. Here is how different actors can do so.
We call on governments:
- To advance international accountability mechanisms and investigations into the Islamic Republic’s systematic violations of human rights and international law;
- To provide resources to Iranian civil society organizations, activists, and human rights defenders, at home and in the diaspora;
- To support initiatives that advance gender equality and women’s rights within Iran;
- To ensure sanctions imposed on Iran are targeted and do not impede access to vital information and communications, or inadvertently undermine the Iranian people’s struggle;
- To ban the use, transfer, and sale of facial recognition and remote biometric recognition technologies that enable mass surveillance and discriminatory targeted surveillance; and
- To prevent tech companies within their jurisdictions importing or transfering surveillance technologies to Iran, and to investigate instances where such transfer has resulted or facilitated human rights abuses.
We call on the private sector:
- To halt the sale and transfer of surveillance technologies that facilitate human rights abuses in Iran;
- To undertake rigorous human rights due diligence to identify and mitigate any possible negative impacts on human rights in Iran as a result of their products or services;
- To enhance protection for Iranian users’ data against online threats, including state surveillance, harassment, and prosecution;
- To preserve evidence of human rights abuses shared on social media platforms, and to document the impacts of internet shutdowns; and
- To avoid over compliance with sanctions, particularly for U.S. companies, and to extend their services and products to people inside of Iran.
We call on the UN and international community, including the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran:
- To thoroughly and independently investigate digital rights violations in Iran, including internet shutdowns and state surveillance, in the aftermath of the September 16 protests;
- To advocate against internet shutdowns and support the Iranian people in staying connected; and
- To support Iranian women and hold the Iranian authorities accountable for their ongoing human rights abuses.
We call on donors and foundations:
- To fund local and diaspora organizations from Iranian civil society;
- To equip Iranian activists with free VPNs and essential digital tools; and
- To provide civil society and activists with long-term support.