A dark-skinned 22-year-old woman from the Kurdistan region of Iran traveled to the capital Tehran to visit relatives. But outside a metro station, the “morality police” arrested Mahsa Amini for allegedly failing to fully cover her hair and dragged her into a police van.
Three days later, she was dead.
Amini’s death has sparked a wave of protests across the country, exposing a raw anger among Iranian women at their treatment by the regime and an unprecedented willingness to defy the government.
“A lot of people are pointing out that this could be my daughter, my sister, my wife,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “This has disturbed people, that whenever a woman leaves home, she may not return.”
As hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met with world leaders in New York for the UN General Assembly this week, extraordinary scenes have unfolded in Iran, with women removing their headscarves and even burning them in front of cheering crowds. , according Video published online.
The combination of the vile videos and hidden anger represent a potential “George Floyd” moment for Iran, Ghaemi said, with the regime “being forced into a corner given how innocent this woman was and there was no reason to kill her.” they were treated so violently. .’
Iran’s UN mission did not respond to a request for comment.
Iranian President Raisi ordered an investigation into Amini’s death and offered his condolences to Amini’s father in a phone call, according to Iranian state media.
“I learned about this incident during my trip to Uzbekistan and immediately ordered my colleagues to investigate the matter specifically,” Raisi said in the call, according to his official website. “I assure you that I will demand this issue from the competent institutions so that its dimensions are clarified.”
The president emphasized that he considers all Iranian girls as his own children. “Your daughter is like my own daughter and I feel that this incident happened to one of my loved ones. Please accept my condolences,” he added.
Eyewitnesses – who were also in the van – told Amini’s father that his daughter was beaten in the police vehicle on the way to the detention centre, rights groups say. Iranian authorities, however, said he died of a heart attack and described the incident as “unfortunate”.
“They said Mahsa had a heart disease and epilepsy, but as a father who raised her for 22 years, I say loudly that Mahsa did not have any disease. She was in perfect health,” Amini’s father told an Iranian news agency.
Women’s rights campaigners have fought the theocracy since its early days after the 1979 revolution, protesting the mandatory veil, or hijab, along with a raft of laws that critics and UN rights monitors say make women second-class citizens. category.
But rights groups say the women’s movement has been given new strength by social media in recent years and a younger generation more willing to challenge the regime.
Since 2017, Iranian women have increasingly opposed the hijab law online, posting videos of themselves removing the headscarf, accompanied by statements that the government has no right to tell a woman how to dress.
Since President Raisi took office in June, the government has deployed more morality police units, which patrol the streets to ensure women adhere to the regime’s strict women’s dress code, said Raha Bahreini, a researcher at the International Amnesty for Iran based in London.
“A very worrying trend in recent months has been the prosecution of women who defy mandatory veil laws. The level of violence women face on the streets is truly appalling,” Bahraini said.
“And as there is now more intense opposition and campaigning against mandatory veil laws in Iran, Iranian authorities are also escalating their attacks on women in the streets.”
But phone cameras and hashtags have become a weapon for activists to push back, mobilize civil disobedience and expose what they claim is an increase in police repression against women.
The digital campaign has been excited by Masih AlinejadIranian women’s rights activist who immigrated to the United States and has become a thorn in the regime’s side.
Alinejad invites Iranian women post their protest videos on social media as part of the #WhiteWednesdays campaign. As a result, he has amassed millions of followers online, and the FBI claims he was the target of a recent kidnapping plot by the regime.
For the Iranian government, “the mandatory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth. It is like the main pillar of the Islamic Republic,” Alinejad told NBC News.
“When the mullahs took power in Iran, what was the first thing they did? They forced women to wear the hijab. Why? Because they use our bodies, as a political platform. So they write their own ideology on our bodies.”
The regime likely fears that giving ground on the mandatory hijab rule could open the door to the unraveling of the entire theocratic system, said Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher at Article 19, an NGO that promotes freedoms of expression.
“They don’t want to concede on this one point for fear that they would have to concede many other restrictions that help maintain the regime,” Alimardani said.
On July 12, when the Iranian government held an annual “purity” day to promote the mandatory hijab law, opponents staged counter-demonstrations, video post to remove their headscarves. Some of the protesters were identified and arrested, but a subsequent online protest on social media under #No2Hijab attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters.
“The consequence of this campaign in Iran was to anger the government authorities, the clergy and the imams,” said Atena Daemi, an Iranian human rights activist who was jailed for seven years for protesting the death penalty and went on three hunger strikes .
Government officials and clerics have called for tougher penalties against women who protest the law, he said.
“Women, on the other hand, were more motivated to continue their fight against compulsory hijab because with each new action, they discover that there are so many of them, they find each other and unite and organize for the next movement,” added Daemi.
Human rights experts and activists say Iran never abandoned its hardline restrictions on women after the revolution, even when more pragmatic reformers were in power.
Under Iran’s interpretation of Sharia law, women cannot travel abroad without a father or husband’s permission, are forbidden from singing or riding a bicycle, are not deprived of custody of their children if they remarry, can to seek divorce only under limited circumstances. legally married at the age of 13 and even younger if the court approves and can only inherit one-eighth of their husband’s estate. Iran ranked 143 out of 146 countries surveyed in a recent World Economic Forum report on gender pay gaps around the world.
When faced with large street protests in the past, the Iranian government has responded with overwhelming force, including firing on unarmed protesters, according to human rights groups and Western governments. At least four people have been killed by police so far in this week’s protests, according to Iran-focused human rights groups.
NBC News has not verified the claims.
State media claimed that foreign agents and seditious elements were behind the street protests.
It is unclear whether the protests will snowball further or whether the authorities will find a way to quell the fury of public outrage.
Whatever the outcome of the current protests, Amini’s death meant the regime is “definitely losing the battle for legitimacy,” Alimardani said.
Each prison sentence and arrest imposed by the regime has only radicalized Iranian women and served as a catalyst for more protests, Alinejad and other activists said.
“We have so many Rosa Parks in Iran. For me, I don’t see Iranian women as victims. They are like warriors,” Alinejad said.
Daemi, one of Iran’s most prominent women’s rights defenders, said she has no plans to give up her fight despite the threat it poses to her and her family’s health.
“I’m sure humanity will win,” Daemi said. “One day, the sun will overcome the darkness.”