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Six months after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, Iranians are still protesting

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's been more than six months since huge protests rocked Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. Amini, who also went by her Kurdish name, Jina, had been detained by the country's morality police for failing to properly wear her hijab, or Islamic headscarf. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been contacting protestors and others on where things might go from here and has this report.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The demonstrations that broke out in Iran's largely Kurdish northwest and quickly spread across the country represented the biggest challenge to Iran's cleric-led regime in its more than four decades in power. Protesters quickly shifted from demanding justice for Mahsa Amini's death after her arrest to demanding the complete overthrow of the government. Six months later, protesters say the demonstrations did usher in some important changes, such as more women discarding the hijab.

Meysam, from the city of Rasht, who we reached through voice messages, sees that as a step forward. Like all Iranians interviewed for this story, he asked that his family name not be used for fear of retribution for speaking to the media. Thousands of protesters have been arrested and hundreds killed. Meysam says, however, that if the question is, did the demonstrations ever pose an existential threat to the government? - he thinks not.

MEYSAM: (Through interpreter) From my own perspective, no. I am not so hopeful that the Iranian society is capable of causing fundamental changes like toppling the Islamic Republic.

KENYON: The morality police haven't been seen in months, and Meysam says security forces are no longer focusing on enforcing the hijab rules except when they see an opportunity to make a little money.

MEYSAM: (Through interpreter) For example, in my own case, a police officer who came to my workplace, which is a public place - and many women were not wearing hijab there - just asked me for a bribe and went away. So these laws have turned into an income source for the police.

KENYON: Another protester, Sara, a teacher from Tehran, says the government has no reason to feel confident. She says in many neighborhoods, people are still chanting anti-regime slogans at 9 o'clock each night.

SARA: (Through interpreter) People are swearing and cursing the ruling system every chance they get, and many trade unions gather in small protests here and there every day. Also, many religious people who maybe supported them before have lost all hope and changed their minds about them. So in short, yes, after Mahsa Amini's death, there have been many obvious and significant changes.

KENYON: She says many people hope the uprising continues, even as families are facing very hard economic times. Analyst Henry Rome with the Washington Institute for Near East Peace (ph) says the economy seems to be what Iran's leaders are focused on. He says anyone expecting the government to make concessions now is misreading the lessons Iran's Islamist ruling class learned from their own rise to power more than four decades ago.

HENRY ROME: I think the leadership of the country, which came to power through a revolution of their own, likely drew the lesson from the overthrow of the Shah that even modest concessions can actually hasten the downfall of a regime as opposed to avoid it.

KENYON: We reached Emad, a 32-year-old protester in Tehran. He says the demonstrators won't give up their hopes of toppling the government.

EMAD: (Through interpreter) Even if this regime gives freedom of hijab, even if they control inflation, even if unemployment comes down to zero and whatever else you can imagine, people will still be demanding one thing, and that is the dismissal of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

KENYON: Analyst Naysan Rafati with the International Crisis Group says the government is equally determined to hang on to power.

NAYSAN RAFATI: You know, they do make occasional tactical adjustments, but among the hardline elite that right now dominate most of the system, it's a matter of not making concessions but, in fact, doubling down and hoping that through iron fist and repression, that probably a very small minority but a group within the population and within the system who agree with them give them enough of a critical mass to maintain control.

KENYON: Rafati says the West should continue some of its early measures, such as helping Iranians have access to the internet and isolating the Iranian government. He says that support should continue so the Iranian people don't feel abandoned. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.