Explain: Mass protests rock Iran over death of young woman

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amin last week, after she was arrested by Iran’s notorious morality police because they thought she was not dressed conservatively enough, sparked one of the most intense waves of popular anger the country has seen in years. a flood of condemnation from abroad.

For a week now, protesters, most of them young women and men, have taken to the streets in dozens of Iranian cities. The scale of the protests has stunned the authorities, who have responded with guns, beatings and telecommunications disruptions in an attempt to quell the unrest. According to state television, 17 people were killed, including two security officers. One rights group says the death toll could be at least twice that.

What do the protests mean for the country’s hardline government? And how do they compare to earlier riots?

Here’s a look at the volatile situation that some fear will lead to more bloodshed in the coming days.

Why did this death trigger such anger?

Amini, a Kurdish woman from the northwestern city of Saqez, was visiting Tehran on September 13 when the moral police (Gasht-e Ershad, or guidance patrols) detained her, saying she was wearing tight pants, which she was not. to wear the headscarf properly, in violation of the law that requires women to wear the hijab and loose clothing to hide their figure in public.

Activists said he was beaten on the head with a club and suffered other injuries severe enough to put him in a coma. Three days later he was dead. Authorities deny Amin was beaten and stressed in a statement that the cause of death was sudden heart failure, possibly due to pre-existing conditions.

“They are lying,” the young woman’s father, Amjad Amini, told BBC Persian on Thursday. “He hasn’t been in the hospital at all in the last 22 years, except for a few colds.”

He added that his son had witnessed his sister being beaten in the van and at the police station, and that he himself had been badly chewed by the police.

Many Iranian women have long called for the so-called hijab laws to be repealed, but Amin’s death struck as few headlines as it has — perhaps because she was young, modest and an out-of-towner visiting the capital. Whatever the reason, they reacted to the news of her death by holding demonstrations, cutting off their hair, burning hijabs and shouting, “Death to the dictator!” Against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Are the protests only about Amin’s death?

The protests have become prey to other long-standing grievances, including those left over from mass protests in 2019 over Iran’s crippled and collapsing economy under sanctions. These demonstrations led to the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with hundreds of people killed – some reports say as many as 1,500.

The lack of civil liberties, bleak economic conditions and difficult negotiations with the West to restore the moribund nuclear deal and lift sanctions have all fueled a broader sense of anger.

Iran’s 2021 presidential election, which brought hardliner Ebrahim Rais to power as an uncontested candidate, marginalized even larger sections of society. Raisi rejected many of the reforms of the past two decades and promoted the morality police.

In June, moral police arrested a young woman named Sepideh Rashnou, who had argued with a pro-government woman on a bus in Tehran about the need for a mandatory hijab. A week later, state television showed Rashnou with a bruised face confessing to having acted inappropriately. The confession went viral.

What is the current situation?

Anti-government demonstrations have taken place in about 80 cities and towns over the past six days, some of which have publicly challenged the government with slogans aimed at Khamenei. There have been reports of protesters burning rubbish bins, blocking access to streets and burning police vehicles as riot police respond with tear gas, water cannons and beatings.

Videos of apparently suppressed protesters in various cities have gone viral, while a hashtag with Amin’s name has been retweeted about 30 million times on Twitter, prompting the government to block or restrict internet services, including messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

The death toll is unclear, but human rights groups say at least 36 people have been killed. Authorities have said they will release official information later. On Thursday night, security forces launched a massive roundup of social activists and journalists, hundreds of whom are currently in custody.

The Norwegian-based Kurdish rights group Hengaw said 15 people had been killed, 733 injured and 600 arrested by Wednesday.

On Friday, the government staged its own counter-demonstration, where thousands gathered in Tehran and reiterated the state’s view that the demonstrations were part of a foreign-backed conspiracy against Iran’s leadership. Internet watchdog group Netblocks said on Friday that internet services had been disrupted for the third time in the past week, with the restrictions being the most severe since the 2019 crackdown.

Amin’s death has also inspired protests abroad, including in the US, Canada, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Italy, Lebanon, Spain and Turkey.

How does this compare to past mass protests, and can they succeed where they failed?

Exact figures on the scale of the demonstration are hard to come by, but it is clear that the protests are the most serious challenge to the government since 2019. But where these riots were caused by economic problems—the proximate cause was rising gas prices—there were demonstrations. Now they are more focused on social aspects, with even religious conservatives raising concerns about the behavior of the morality police.

Another key difference is that the protests have seen a more aggressive approach from protesters who are more willing to fight back against security forces. The scale of the violence, at least from clips and videos, appears to be greater.

The controversy has also forced the government to consider. At a press conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Raisi said he had assured Amin’s family that the incident would be investigated, even as he spoke of the West’s “double standards” when it comes to human rights.

“Our biggest concern is protecting the rights of every citizen,” he said. “If his death was negligent, it will certainly be investigated and I promise that I will deal with the matter whether the international forums take a stand or not.”

Other officials have used the usual tactic of demonizing protesters. Tehran Governor Mohsen Mansouri claimed in a tweet on Wednesday that many of the protesters “have attended rallies and sometimes riots,” adding that just under half of them have “significant documents and files in various police, security and judicial institutions.”

He also claimed a day earlier that the main organizers were “trained” to cause disruption.

Despite this rhetoric, the protests have drawn support from artists, athletes, singers and celebrities.

“Don’t be afraid of strong women. Maybe the day will come when they will be your only army,” famous Iranian soccer player Ali Karimi tweeted. Prominent sociologist Mohammad Fazeli said, “The responsibility to end the violence rests with the institution that controls the media, decision-making and everything else.”

Special correspondent Khazani reported from Tehran and writer Bulos from Amman, Jordan.