Protests have erupted across Iran in recent days after a 22-year-old woman died while being caught by ethics police for violating the country’s strictly enforced Islamic dress code.
The death of Mahsa Amini, who was picked up for her supposedly loose headscarf, or hijab, has triggered a daring display of defiance in the face of beatings and possible arrest.
Many Iranians, especially youth, have come to view Amini’s death as part of the Islamic Republic’s heavy-handed policing and increasingly violent treatment of young women by the ethics police.
Here’s a look at what led to the protests and where they might lead.
What is happening in Iran?
In street protests, some women tore off their obligatory headscarves, demonstratively twirling them in the air. Videos online showed two women throwing their hijabs into a bonfire. Another woman is seen cutting her hair at the protest.
In some demonstrations, protesters clashed with police and thick clouds of tear gas were seen rising over the capital, Tehran. The motorcyclist Basij also chased the protesters and thrashed them with clubs.
Volunteers in Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard have violently suppressed protests in the past, including over water rights and the country’s catering economy.
Yet some protesters still chant “death to the dictator”, targeting both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s theocracy, despite the prospect of arrest, imprisonment and even the death penalty.
What is the reason for the protest in Iran?
Iran’s ethics police arrested Amini on September 13 in Tehran, where she was on her way from her hometown in the country’s western Kurdish region. She collapsed in a police station and died three days later.
The police detained her for wearing a loose hijab. Women in Iran are required to wear a headscarf in a way that completely covers their hair in public. Only Afghanistan under Taliban rule now actively enforces a similar law. Ultra-Orthodox Saudi Arabia has scaled back its enforcement in recent years.
The police deny that Amini was abused and say that she died of a heart attack. President Ibrahim Raisi, speaking at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, has promised an investigation.
Amini’s family says she had no history of heart ailment and was prevented from seeing her body before burial. Demonstrations broke out after his funeral on Saturday in the Kurdish city of Sakez, and quickly spread to other parts of the country, including Tehran.
How are women treated in Iran?
Iranian women have every right to education, work outside the home and hold public office. But they are required to dress decently in public, including a hijab as well as long, loose-fitting garments. Unmarried men and women are barred from meeting.
The rules, which date back to the days after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, are enforced by the ethics police. The force, officially known as the Guidance Patrol, is stationed in public areas. It is composed of men as well as women.
Enforcement was eased under former President Hassan Rouhani, a relative liberal, who at one time accused the ethics police of being overly aggressive. In 2017, the force’s chief said he would no longer arrest women for dress code violations.
But under a radical Raisi elected last year, agents of the ethics police have been ousted. The UN human rights office says young women have been slapped in the face, beaten with sticks and pushed into police vehicles in recent months.
How has Iran responded to the protests?
Iranian leaders have vowed to investigate the circumstances of Amini’s death, accusing unidentified foreign countries and exiled opposition groups of occupying it on the pretext of stirring up unrest. This has been a common pattern during protests in recent years.
Iran’s ruling clerics see the United States as a threat to the Islamic Republic and believe that adopting Western customs undermines society. Khamenei has seized on so-called “color” protests in Europe and elsewhere as foreign interference – not as demonstrations for greater rights.
Tensions are particularly high since then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and imposed severe sanctions. The Biden administration has been working with European allies for the past two years to revive the agreement. The talks appear to be deadlocked, as non-proliferation experts have warned that Iran has sufficiently enriched uranium if it chooses to build a nuclear bomb. The Islamic Republic insists that its program is peaceful.
Tehran’s governor said on Wednesday that authorities arrested three foreign nationals during a protest in the capital without giving any further details. Iranian security forces have arrested at least 25 people, and the governor of Kurdistan province says three people have been killed without detail in unrest linked to protests by armed groups.
Activists and human rights groups have blamed Iranian security forces for killing protesters in other demonstrations, such as those over gasoline prices in 2019.
Could the protests lead to the fall of Iran’s government?
Iran’s ruling clerics have faced several waves of protests decades ago, eventually eliminating them with brute force.
The most serious challenge to the cleric’s rule was the Green Movement, which emerged after the country’s controversial presidential election in 2009 and called for far-reaching reforms; Millions of Iranians took to the streets.
The authorities responded with a brutal crackdown, with the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militias opening fire on the demonstrators and launching waves of arrests. Opposition leaders were placed under house arrest.
Among those killed was Neda Agha Soltan, a 27-year-old woman who became a symbol of the protest movement after she was shot and killed in a video viewed by millions on social media.
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