Protests have erupted across Iran in recent days after a 22-year-old woman died while being detained by morality police for violating the country’s strictly enforced Islamic dress code.
Anger has seen women remove their mandatory headscarves, or hijabs, from covering their hair following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the morality police for her alleged loose headscarf. Videos online show women twirling them on top of themselves and chanting. Others have burned them or cut off tufts of their hair in a fit of rage.
Amini’s death has angered many Iranians, especially young people, who see it as part of the Islamic Republic’s harsh policing of dissent and the increasingly brutal treatment of young women by the morality police.
In some of the protests, protesters clashed with the police. Thick clouds of tear gas have been seen in the capital Tehran.
Meanwhile, motorcycle-riding volunteers known as “Basij” in Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard chased and beat protesters – as they have in other protests in recent years over water rights, the country’s cratering economy and other causes they have suppress violently.
But some protesters are still chanting “death to the dictator,” targeting both the power of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran’s theocracy, despite the threat of arrest, jail and even the possibility of the death penalty.
See what sparked the protests and where they might lead.
WHAT CAUSED THE PROTESTS IN IRAN?
Iran’s morality police arrested Amini on September 13 in Tehran, where she was visiting from her homeland in the country’s western Kurdish region. He collapsed in a police station and died three days later.
The police arrested her for wearing her hijab too loosely. Iran requires women to wear the headscarf in a way that fully covers their hair when in public. Only Taliban-ruled Afghanistan now actively enforces a similar law — even ultraconservative Saudi Arabia has rolled back its enforcement in recent years.
Police deny abusing Amini and say she died of a heart attack. President Ebrahaim Raisi, who will address the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, promised an investigation.
Amini’s family says she had no history of heart problems and was not allowed to see her body before burial. Protests broke out after her funeral in the Kurdish city of Saqez on Saturday and quickly spread to other parts of the country, including Tehran.
HOW ARE WOMEN TREATED IN IRAN?
Iranian women have full access to education, work outside the home and hold public office. They are, however, required to dress modestly in public, which includes wearing the hijab as well as long, loose robes. Unmarried men and women are forbidden to associate.
The rules, which date back to the days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, are enforced by the morality police. These forces, officially known as Guidance Patrol, are stationed in public areas. It consists of men as well as women.
Enforcement was eased under former president Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who at one point accused the morality police of being too aggressive. In 2017, the head of the force said it would no longer arrest women for breaching the dress code.
But under Raisi, a hardliner who was elected last year, the morality police appear to have been unleashed. The UN human rights office says young women have been slapped in the face, beaten with batons and shoved into police vehicles in recent months.
HOW DID IRAN RESPOND TO THE PROTESTS?
Iranian leaders have vowed to investigate the circumstances of Amini’s death, while accusing unnamed foreign countries and exiled opposition groups of seizing it as a pretext to foment unrest. This has been a common pattern in any of the protests that have erupted in recent years.
Iran’s ruling clerics view the United States as a threat to the Islamic Republic and believe that adopting Western customs undermines society. Khamenei himself has exploited the so-called “colored” protests in Europe and elsewhere as foreign interventions – rather than people protesting for more rights.
Tensions are particularly high after former President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and imposed devastating sanctions. The Biden administration has been working with European allies for the past two years to revive the accord, but negotiations appear deadlocked as non-proliferation experts warn that Iran has enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb if it chooses to build one. The Islamic Republic insists its program is peaceful.
Tehran’s governor said on Wednesday that authorities arrested three foreign nationals at protests in the capital, without giving further details. Iranian security forces have arrested at least 25 people and the governor of Kurdistan province says three people have been killed by armed groups in unrest linked to the protests, without elaborating.
Activists and human rights groups have accused Iranian security forces of killing demonstrators in other protests, such as those over gasoline prices in 2019.
COULD THE PROTESTS DESTROY IRAN’S GOVERNMENT?
Iran’s ruling clerics have weathered several waves of protests dating back decades, ultimately suppressing them with brute force.
The most serious challenge to clerical power has been the Green Movement that emerged after the country’s disputed 2009 presidential election and called for sweeping reforms. millions of Iranians took to the streets.
The authorities responded with a brutal crackdown, with the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia opening fire on protesters and unleashing waves of arrests. Opposition leaders were placed under house arrest.
Among the dead was Neda Agha Soltan, a 27-year-old woman who became an icon of the protest movement after she was shot and bled to death in a video seen by millions on social media.
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