Protests have erupted across Iran in recent days after the death of a 22-year-old woman in moral police custody for violating the country’s strictly enforced Islamic dress code.
Angry women removed their mandatory hijab or turban from where it covered their hair following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was taken away by the ethics police for allegedly being loose. Online videos showed women spinning overhead, chanting. Others angrily burned them or cut their own hair.
Amini’s death has angered many Iranians, especially young people, who have come to see it as part of the Islamic Republic’s harsh police oversight of dissidents and increasing violence against young women by the ethics police.
During some demonstrations, protesters clashed with 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 Guards chased and beat demonstrators – as they have in other protests in recent years over water rights, the country’s beleaguered economic and other causes of violent repression.
However, some demonstrators still chanted “death to the dictator”, targeting both the rule of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran’s theocracy, despite threats of arrest, imprisonment and even the death penalty.
Here’s what sparked the protests and where they could lead.
What led to the protests in Iran?
Iran’s ethics police arrested Amini in Tehran on September 13, as she was visiting from her hometown in the Kurdish region of the country’s west. She collapsed at the police station and died three days later.
Police arrested her for wearing a hijab that was too loose. Iran requires women to fully cover their hair when wearing a headscarf in public. Only Afghanistan under the Taliban is now actively enforcing similar laws — even ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has withdrawn enforcement in recent years.
Police deny Amini was abused and say she died of a heart attack. President Ibrahim Raisi, who is due to address the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, has pledged to investigate.
Amini’s family said she had no history of heart disease and they were not allowed to see her body until she was buried. Demonstrations erupted in the Kurdish city of Sakiz after her funeral on Saturday and quickly spread to other parts of the country, including Tehran.
How does Iran treat women?
Iranian women have full access to education, work outside the home and hold public office. But they were required to dress modestly in public, including wearing headscarves and loose robes. Unmarried men and women are prohibited from dating.
The rules date back to the days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and are enforced by the Morality Police. These units, formally known as guide patrols, are stationed in public areas. It consists of men and women.
Former President Hassan Rouhani was a relatively moderate man who at one point accused the ethics police of being too aggressive. In 2017, the head of the force said it would no longer arrest women for violating the dress code.
But the ethics police appear to have been released under the leadership of the hard-line Lacey, who was elected last year. In recent months, young women have been slapped, beaten with sticks and pushed into police cars, the UN human rights office said.
How is Iran responding to the protests?
Iranian leaders have vowed to investigate the circumstances of Amini’s death, while accusing unnamed foreign and exiled opposition groups of seizing it as an excuse to incite unrest. This is a common pattern in any protest that has sprung up in recent years.
Iran’s ruling cleric sees the United States as a threat to the Islamic Republic and believes the adoption of Western customs would destroy society. Khamenei himself sees protests by so-called “people of color” in Europe and elsewhere as foreign interference — not people demonstrating for more rights.
Tensions have been particularly high since former President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and imposed tough sanctions. The Biden administration has been working with European allies for the past two years to revive the deal, but talks appear to have stalled as nonproliferation experts warn that Iran has enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb if it chooses to do so. The Islamic Republic insists its plans are peaceful.
Authorities arrested three foreigners during protests in the capital, Tehran’s governor said on Wednesday, without elaborating. Iranian security forces have arrested at least 25 people, and the governor of Kurdistan province said three people were killed by armed groups during protests-related unrest, without elaborating.
Activists and human rights groups have accused Iranian security forces of killing protesters at other demonstrations, such as over gasoline prices in 2019.
Will the protests lead to the collapse of the Iranian government?
Decades ago, Iran’s ruling clergy withstood waves of protests, eventually crushing them with brute force.
The most serious challenge to cleric rule was the green movement that emerged after the country’s controversial 2009 presidential election and called for far-reaching reforms; millions of Iranians took to the streets.
Authorities responded with a brutal crackdown, with Revolutionary Guards and Basski militias firing on protesters and launching wave after wave of arrests. The leader of the opposition party was placed under house arrest.
Among the dead was Neda Agha Soltan, 27, 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 figure.
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