Closer Look – Mass protests roil Iran over the death of a young woman

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last week, after she was arrested by Iran’s notorious morality police for thinking she wasn’t dressed modestly enough, sparked one of the fiercest waves of public anger the country has seen in years, as well as a deluge of condemnation. From outside.

A week ago, protesters, mostly young women and men, took to the streets in dozens of Iranian cities. The scale of the demonstrations stunned the authorities, who responded with guns, beatings and cutting communications in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the unrest. State television put the death toll at 17, including two security officers. One rights group says the total death toll may be at least double that.

What will the protests mean for the country’s hard-line government? How do they compare to previous seizures?

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

Why did this death spark such anger?

Amini, a Kurdish woman from the northwestern city of Saqqaz, was visiting Tehran on September 13 when she was detained by the morality police (Gesht Ershad, or Guidance Patrols), who said she was wearing tight pants and did not. Wearing the hijab correctly, in violation of a law requiring women to wear the hijab and loose-fitting clothing to conceal their identities in public.

Activists said she was hit on the head with a bat and sustained other injuries that were serious enough to put her in a coma. She died three days later. Authorities denied hitting Amini, insisting in a statement that the cause of death was sudden heart failure, possibly due to previous cases.

“They are lying,” Amjad Amini, the young woman’s father, told BBC Persian on Thursday. “You haven’t been to any hospital at all in the past 22 years, except for some cold-related illnesses.”

He added that his son saw his sister being beaten in the truck and at the police station, and that he himself was beaten by the officers.

Many Iranian women have long called for the abolition of so-called hijab laws, but Amini’s death struck a chord on some events – perhaps because she was young, modest and a visitor outside the capital. Whatever the reason, she responded to the news of her death by organizing demonstrations, cutting their hair, burning their headscarves, and shouting, “Death to the dictator!” In direct criticism of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Are protests over the death of Amini only?

The demonstrations have grown into a cornerstone of other long-standing grievances, including those left by mass protests in 2019 over Iran’s collapsed and crippled economy and sanctions. Those demonstrations led to the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which hundreds were killed – and some reports put the death toll as high as 1,500.

The lack of civil liberties, dismal economic conditions, and sporadic negotiations with the West to restore a moribund nuclear deal and roll back sanctions have led to a broader sense of anger.

The 2021 Iranian presidential elections, which brought hardliner Ebrahim Raisi to power as the undisputed candidate, marginalized large sections of society. Key rolled back many of the reforms of the past two decades, and strengthened the morality police.

In June, the morality police arrested a young woman, Sepideh Rachno, who had discussed the necessity of the mandatory hijab with a pro-government woman on a Tehran bus. A week later, state television showed Rachno with bruises on her face as she admitted that she had behaved inappropriately. The recognition spread virally.

What is the current situation?

The past six days have seen anti-government protests in about 80 cities and towns, with some presenting an open challenge to the government with slogans targeting Khamenei. Reports emerged of protesters burning waste containers, blocking access to the streets, and burning police cars, while riot police responded with tear gas, water cannons and beatings.

Videos of protesters apparently being shot spread in different cities, while the hashtag with Amini’s name was retweeted among 30 million times, prompting the government to ban or curtail internet services, including messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

The death record remains unclear, but human rights groups say at least 36 people were killed. The authorities said they would publish the official figures at a later time. On Thursday evening, the security forces launched a huge fishing net targeting social activists and journalists, and now hundreds are detained.

By Wednesday, 15 people had been killed, along with 733 injured, and 600 arrested, a Norway-based Kurdish rights organization, Hengau, said.

On Friday, the government staged its own counter-demonstration, with thousands gathering in Tehran and repeating the state’s position that the demonstrations were part of a foreign-backed conspiracy against the Iranian leadership. Internet monitoring group Netblocks said Friday that internet services have been disrupted for the third time in the past week, with some of the most severe restrictions since the 2019 campaign.

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

How does this compare to previous mass protests, and can they succeed where those protests have failed?

It is difficult to get exact numbers on the scale of the demonstrations, but it is clear that the protests pose the biggest challenge to the government since 2019. However, as those unrest was caused by economic concerns – the direct cause was high gas prices – the demonstrations are now more focused on social aspects, Even religious conservatives are raising concerns about the behavior of the morality police.

Another important difference is that the protests have seen a more aggressive approach on the part of protesters who are more willing to respond to the security forces. The scale of the violence, at least according to the clips and videos, seems even greater.

The controversy also forced the government to intervene. Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Raisi said he assured Amini’s family that the incident would be investigated, even as he spoke of “the West’s weak ‘standards’ when it comes to human rights.”

“Our main concern is to preserve the rights of every citizen,” he said. “If her death was due to negligence, it will certainly be investigated, and I pledge to pursue the case regardless of whether or not international forums take a stand.”

Other officials resorted to the usual tactic of demonizing protesters. On Wednesday, Tehran Governor Mohsen al-Mansoori claimed in a tweet on Twitter that many protesters “have a history of attending rallies and sometimes riots,” adding that just under half of them had “important records and files in various police, security, and judicial institutions.”

He also claimed the previous day that the primary regulators had been “trained” to cause disruption.

Despite this rhetoric, the protests were supported by artists, athletes, singers, and celebrities.

“Don’t be afraid of strong women. Ali Karimi, a famous Iranian footballer, tweeted, Perhaps the day will come when they will be your only army. Mohammad Fazeli, a prominent sociologist, said: “The responsibility to end violence rests with the institution that controls media, decision-making and all another thing”.

Special Correspondent Omid Khazani From Tehran and the writer Paul is from Amman, Jordan.

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