'If I Don't Respond to Calls...'

Iranian Women's Fight,
Told Through Their Texts

(This article was originally published on 19 November 2022. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives after Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi was awarded 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for her fight against the oppression of women.)

“If I don’t respond to your calls, understand that our internet has been shut off,” an Iranian woman, who is one of the protesters, typed an urgent message via WhatsApp.

“I hope this is not the last time you’re hearing my voice,” another told The Quint, via the instant messaging platform.

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, who was detained by the police for not wearing the hijab appropriately, has catalysed a wave of protests across the country against a government that perhaps fears nothing more than a popular uprising.

On 21 September, the Iranian government put a blanket ban on social media, making it difficult for protesters, who are predominantly women, to communicate with the rest of the world about the brutality of the Riot Police.

A day before the social media ban, on 20 September, hundreds of protesters gathered at Tehran's Keshavarz Boulevard – chanting 'Death to Khamenei' – and verbally attacking Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

"The police shot at us. They used tear gas and chased us on motorcycles. They shot me with rubber bullets and beat me with batons," Nergis, a protester, told The Quint.

Visuals of these protests were uploaded on social media platforms, giving a glimpse into what was transpiring in Iran.

Around 9 pm the next day, messages stopped going through, videos were not getting uploaded, calls were disconnected, and pictures were not downloading anymore.

With that, WhatsApp groups in Iran began buzzing with rumours that the regime was shutting off the internet across the capital Tehran, in an attempt to contain the protests.

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Some sent out SOS messages and requested journalists to record their testimonies before they lost access to the internet. The Quint has accessed some of the urgent messages.

"A day will come when you (the regime) will be crushed under the hands and feet of this nation. The people of this country are very strong," one of the messages to this journalist read.

"Just wanted to let you know that I have reached home safe. But please, please convince other journalists to focus on what is happening here. Not UNGA," another message read.

The events in the country coincided with the then ongoing session of the 77th United Nations General Assembly, where the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a multi-country treaty to ensure that Iran's nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful – was also under discussion.

Freedom Groups

And the Various Ways To Bypass the Social Media Ban

Twitter, meantime, was abuzz with the various ways in which Iranians can bypass restrictions placed by the regime.

The hacktivist group 'Anonymous' suggested that protesters use 'Tor,' an application known for enabling communication in countries with strict censorship.

However, the protesters were weary, with the situation in Tehran escalating with every protest.

“I’ve never heard about 'Tor' and even though it sounds simple, I wasn’t going to risk using new apps or browsers. You never know which Iranian revolutionary guard is holding the key to this browser,” Shaista, one of the protesters, told The Quint.

Shaista and her friends decided to use another app they trusted, Telegram, where they discovered a dozen protest groups that were sending out videos and pictures of protests almost every minute.

As soon as the word spread, protesters downloaded the app and joined the “freedom groups,” as they call them.

While they believe these groups are safe, and can express their thoughts on the regime freely, there have also been incidents which have discouraged them from posting their pictures and videos. Shaista’s 20-year-old colleague Saeed informed their group that he was identified by name, after participating in one of the protests on 20 September.

A Plea for Internet

And a Message to Elon Musk

The protesters in Iran also reached out to SpaceX and Starlink founder Elon Musk on Twitter, seeking his help.

Starlink uses the SpaceX Falcon9 rocket to deliver a large system of satellites to orbit, thereby providing broadband-level internet access.

Musk and his Starlink team were applauded for helping the Ukrainian army hit Russian targets; so much so that Iranian protesters were tweeting and requesting Musk to activate Starlink in Iran, where the internet is still weak or inaccessible in many areas.

Post-midnight on Friday evening, Iranians sent out victory messages. Musk had made the announcement, under a post of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Blinken tweeted that the Joe Biden administration had taken steps to advance internet freedom among Iranian protesters. To which Musk responded: “Activating Starlink.”

“Please Listen to Us”

And the Criticism Against Meta

After growing criticism against Meta which owns WhatsApp, the latter announced that it wasn’t blocking Iranian accounts and would do anything in their “technical capacity” to keep services running.

However, with over 86,000+ followers, some of the Iranian Telegram accounts have been the go-to place for Iranian protesters who refuse to depend on apps that risk continuity in a time as critical as this "revolution."

Iranian protesters continue to send videos and messages to The Quint that the Riot Police have strengthened in numbers and opened fire on the protesters.

According to official estimates, at least 35 have died due to police violence. The access to free speech online right now is paramount for Iranians fighting for freedom.

"Please listen to us. We want freedom in Iran..."



Deepa Parent

Deepa is an independent journalist based out of Paris. An alumna of University College Dublin, she writes about international conflict and war.


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