One year after Mahsa Jina Amini's death, KU researchers analyze social media responses in Iran

LAWRENCE — One year ago, Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Jina Amini was killed, setting off some of the largest protests in Iran’s recent history. Her death, widely attributed to a beating after her arrest by the nation’s morality police for not wearing her hijab correctly, spurred protests calling for improved women's rights. A new study from the University of Kansas examines how social media has powered the protests and if the cause has shifted away from a women’s rights focus, like many before it.

Pegah Naemi Jimenez, research associate; Ariana Nasrazadani, assistant researcher senior, and Rose Hicks, a student staff member, all with KU’s School of Social Welfare, have analyzed social media posts regarding Amini’s death and the protests in the subsequent six months. They found that the message has shifted from one of demanding rights for women to a broader focus of human rights under an oppressive regime.

A woman holds a sign and wears a noose during solidarity protests in Melbourne, Australia. The protests were in conjunction with the Iranian women's movement following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.“There have been uprisings of social protest in Iran since the 1800s, the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the most recent protests in 2022, which some call the women’s revolution, are the most in the global mainstream,” Naemi Jimenez said. “We see women’s and feminist movements in Iran where women are a frequently a catalyst for change. The repression is usually worst for them, but it becomes more of a discussion of human rights, not women’s rights.”

To determine if such a shift were happening again, Naemi Jimenez and Nasrazadani began studying social media posts made immediately after Amini’s death, two months later and six months later. Posts made on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Reddit were captured and analyzed for language they used, whether they contained hashtags such as #MahsaAmini, #womenslifefreedom or #freeIran and if they included photos, videos or descriptions.

“Pretty early on, it shifts to, ‘Why are we living like this?’” Nasrazadani said of the tone of social media posts. “It’s important to know Iran has an extremely young population. During the war with Iraq, the government said, ‘Have more children. Make more martyrs for us,’ and so they did. These are people who’ve only known theocracy. I think that makes it easy for this to transition to a broader social movement.”

Two researchers have deep ties to Iran. Naemi Jimenez was born there, and her family immigrated to the United States during the war with Iraq. Nasrazadani’s father immigrated to the United States in the mid-1970s while much of the rest of her family stayed behind. She also had an uncle who was killed in the war at the age of 16 and said she has been confronted by the nation’s morality police while visiting Iran in the past.

The researchers said they wanted to analyze social media posts about the protests because while the nation’s government works to control access to social media, it is still citizens’ most effective way to share their messages.

The findings show that posts talking about the murder largely focused on women’s rights but within six months were mostly about larger issues of human rights. The tone reveals many people are against the country’s current regime yet love their homeland. That follows a pattern of protests from 2009, 2017 and 2019.

“People are not anti-Iran, or anti Iranian identity,” Naemi Jimenez said. “They’re speaking about an identity they want and know they can have.”

The shift in messages follows a pattern from the Green Movement in 2009, which began as a protest to the highly contentious presidential election. That was a precursor to the larger Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011, and like the current movement, gained momentum after the death of a young woman. Today, people remember the uprisings across Northern Africa and the Middle East but largely forget they started with protests in Iran that were often organized by women, the researchers said.

Naemi Jimenez and Nasrazadani are presenting their early findings at a research impact talk Oct. 13.

The researchers will continue to study posts regarding the protests beyond six months since Amini’s death and hope to expand their research to examine how Iranian exiled communities and Iranian Americans have experienced the protests in the year since the murder. They said they are already beginning to see posts removed from social media and preemptive limiting of internet access around the first anniversary of Amini's death Sept. 16.

“The Iranian government says women are important, that they are the cornerstone of family and the household, but they don’t treat them that way,” Nasrazadani said. “There is real cognitive dissonance happening, because we’re being told we need to value women, yet they’re being murdered. We’ve seen a lot of that sentiment in the social media posts we’ve analyzed.”

While social media postings have shown a shift in focus from women’s rights to broader human rights issues, the researchers said they hope their study can show that both are valuable and part of a bigger global discussion about women’s social activism in Iran.

“Part of the goal is to provide these conversations so that when we talk about women’s movements, there is not that invisibility. There is often a tension of whose issues we talk about first,” Naemi Jimenez said. “We can start from the collective. This is our attempt to begin that discourse so people know that this Iranian women’s movement is feminism and it can be part of a global collective.”

Image: A woman holds a sign and wears a noose during solidarity protests in Melbourne, Australia. The protests were in conjunction with the Iranian women's movement following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.