(Bloomberg) — Violence erupted in Iran’s capital as security forces quelled the biggest public backlash against the country’s dress code for women since the 1979 revolution that established the laws.
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Police used water cannons and fired tear gas to disperse crowds in Tehran after hundreds of protesters clashed with security forces on Monday. The outburst of public anger was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who fell into a coma and died after being arrested by the “morality police” last week because of how she was dressed.
Videos posted on social media showed protesters chanting “death to the dictator”, “women, life, freedom” and “I will kill whoever killed my sister” against a backdrop of armed police and black police vans. In some clips, members of the public can be seen retaliating against members of an all-volunteer, uniformed militia run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, often deployed to infiltrate and sometimes violently break up protests.
Other footage included a woman standing on a car bonnet setting fire to her headscarf, as well as a rubbish bin and a police motorbike on fire. The videos could not be independently verified by Bloomberg.
The unrest is some of the most violent in Iran since November 2019 protests over fuel prices and comes as Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi — a cleric who has spent much of his career helping to define its Islamic laws country — making his first physical appearance at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
He will be joined by Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, who are expected to meet diplomats on the sidelines to address the latest impasse facing talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
Amini’s death will likely overshadow Raisi’s visit to the UN as the chorus of voices condemning the incident grows louder. On Tuesday, acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nassif urged an impartial investigation.
Earlier, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a tweet “Mahsa Amini should be alive today. Instead, the United States and the Iranian people mourn her. We call on the Iranian government to end the systemic persecution of women and allow peaceful protest.”
There were also rallies at major universities in Tehran, Tasnim reported, while clashes erupted over the weekend in Amini’s hometown of Saghez in northwestern Iran’s Kurdistan province, where she was buried on Saturday.
In a statement, Tehran police said Amini suffered “heart failure” on Friday while in a coma after being detained by officers from the city’s so-called morality unit.
Police chief General Hossein Rahimi called her death an “unfortunate incident”, ruling out any wrongdoing by his staff, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported. Iran’s parliament said it has launched an investigation and is seeking to reform laws governing how police ethics patrols are used and deployed.
Donya-e-Eqtesad newspaper quoted Amini’s father, Amjad Amini, as saying that she had no pre-existing illness when she was detained. She accused the authorities of beating her and then covering up their actions. “We will not let her blood go in vain,” the paper told him.
Iran’s morality police destroy outfit they say violates Islamic codes. But critics say their approach is arbitrary and embodies the government’s efforts to impose harsh religious beliefs on women and girls. The units have been widely disliked for years and often draw sharp criticism from reformers, public figures and moderate clergy.
Internet was disrupted in parts of Kurdistan province as the protests took place, digital monitoring group NetBlocks said. Residents near the protests and in Tehran also reported connectivity issues. Internet outages during protests in Iran are common, and web access was banned entirely in November 2019 when widespread protests over fuel prices turned deadly.
Rahimi, Tehran’s police chief, said Amini was arrested because “her leggings were problematic,” according to comments published in Iran’s leading reformist newspaper Shargh.
Women in Iran have been subject to mandatory Islamic dress codes since the 1979 revolution that mandate a “chandor” — a black cloak that wraps the body from head to toe — or long, loose-fitting overcoats and tightly worn headscarves.
Over the years, however, the enforcement of the rules fluctuated and women gradually challenged the limits of what was permissible. In urban centers in particular, loose headscarves and leggings worn with long robes are common — similar to the clothes Amini was seen wearing in CCTV footage captured inside the police station and broadcast on state television.
The morality police, who patrol the cities in minivans catching mostly young men and women on the street, have increased their activity since Raisi’s election last year. Security forces have increasingly pushed back against public displays of dissent since early 2018, when several women were arrested for removing their headscarves in public.
Authorities already use license plate recognition to target female drivers deemed insufficiently covered and have announced plans to introduce facial recognition software to prosecute women more vigorously.
(Updates with UN response, context and more details on the protests.)
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