Why a Woman’s Death in Iran Has Ignited New Protests

The death of a young woman in police custody after she was detained for violating Iran’s strict dress code has sparked violent protests across the country. It’s the biggest popular challenge to religious rules imposed on women since the 1979 revolution. The case has focused anger on the so-called Guidance Patrol — officers who target women they deem to be improperly dressed in public. These “morality police” units have long been highly unpopular, but the protests are the first major rebuke of their actions. That doesn’t mean the establishment is about to be swept aside. Iran’s security forces retain a strong grip on the country as they seek to protect the clerical establishment.

1. What provoked the protests?

The immediate trigger was the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, which was announced on Sept. 16. According to state media, she’d traveled from the western province of Kurdistan with family to Tehran, where a Guidance Patrol team detained her in a park claiming she was inappropriately dressed. Her brother’s pleas for just a warning were brushed aside and Amini was forced into a minivan and taken to a police station, according to an account in the reformist Shargh newspaper. After news of her death emerged, Iranian state TV released CCTV footage of Amini collapsing over a chair and onto the floor. Tehran’s police force said she suffered “heart failure.” Her family accused authorities of beating her and covering it up, saying she had no underlying health conditions.

2. How deep is the anger?

Large protests have been reported in cities across Iran. Celebrities, politicians and athletes condemned the police on social media, also criticizing the Guidance Patrols. Young women have removed and, in some cases, burned their head scarves to show solidarity with Amini. The unrest is tapping into broader frustration with Iran’s hardline rulers over the state of the heavily sanctioned economy, entrenched corruption and social restrictions. Footage of the protests on social media has shown demonstrators beating back security forces. None of the videos can be verified by Bloomberg.

3. What are protesters demanding?

They want laws imposing mandatory hejab (the term used in Islam to describe modest dress) for all females from the age of nine to be overturned, or for the code to be discretionary. The rules stipulate a “chador” — a black cloak that envelopes the body from head to toe — or long, loose-fitting overcoats and tightly tied head scarves. The laws came into effect after the 1979 revolution when exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, deposing the pro-Western Shah. They became immediately unpopular among the country’s educated middle class and divided female activists who had fought for the revolution. Over the years, women have gradually pushed the boundaries of what’s permissible. Loose shawls and robes, often open and worn with leggings, are common attire in most cities and similar to what Amini was wearing when she was detained.

4. Are these the first protests against hejab laws?

Opposition to the dress code has been a feature of the country’s tightly controlled civil society ever since the revolution, but dissent has grown louder since late 2017 when a number of women were photographed standing on public electrical cabinets and benches in Tehran, holding their head scarves aloft. They were all arrested and some were seen being aggressively pushed to the ground by police. In August, a woman named Sepideh Rashno was arrested and forced to make a confession on state TV after being filmed arguing with a religious, chador-clad individual who’d been harassing another young woman over her attire. Rashno’s face showed clear signs of bruises and swelling.

5. How have authorities responded?

The default response of Iran’s security forces is to break up unapproved gatherings, deeming them illegal. When participant numbers swell, riot police are normally deployed to disperse crowds using batons or by firing shotgun pellets and tear gas. Plainclothed, voluntary militias also attack protesters and often film them to help with later arrests. But with the Amini protests, it’s been a bit different. The head of Iran’s parliament (a hardliner and former police commander accused of beating protesters in the late 1990s) announced reforms to the Guidance Patrol laws and President Ebrahim Raisi promised Amini’s parents an investigation.

6. What were previous protests about?

The biggest domestic challenge to the government came in 2009 from the so-called Green Movement, sparked by allegations of fraud in the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Demonstrations focused largely on political issues and attracted millions of middle-class Iranians in Tehran. The state reacted swiftly to quash dissent, with dozens killed, hundreds arrested and web access significantly impeded. But protests continue to flare and be put down:

• IN MAY 2022, demonstrations erupted in southwest Iran after the collapse of a 10-story building, poorly constructed and commissioned by a government official, killed at least 40 people.

• IN JANUARY 2020, Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down a passenger jet, killing the 176 people on board, sparking protests. Public anger was fueled by the incompetence of the security establishment and efforts to hide the state’s culpability for days.

• IN NOVEMBER 2019, protests were sparked by a sharp and sudden increase in the price of gasoline ordered by the government, which subsidizes the fuel. Iranians were already being squeezed by US sanctions, imposed the year before by then-President Donald Trump. Security forces responded with deadly force.

• IN LATE 2017, Iranians took to the streets to express frustration with economic insecurity in protests that expanded to include opposition to the regime.

• In the oil-rich, southwestern province of Khuzestan, which has a large population of Arabs, a minority in mostly Persian Iran, protests against corruption and poverty are common, prompting a crackdown by security forces.

7. What’s the state of the opposition in Iran?

There is no legitimate, organized opposition inside Iran. People criticize the leadership privately, but such views are rarely reflected in the country’s tightly regulated media. The only political factions that can function are those that support the core values of the Islamic Republic. Secularists, communists and groups that promote religions other than Islam are effectively banned. Iranian politicians fall roughly into three categories: ultra-conservatives such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, moderate or pragmatic conservatives like former President Hassan Rouhani or Ali Larijani, and reformists like former President Mohammad Khatami. The reformists believe that the political system should be open to improvement, but their popularity and influence has declined since the US abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal four years ago and reimposed sanctions.

8. What protects the current system?

Khamenei has built a strong relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the largest and most powerful wing of Iran’s military, which has helped fortify his position. Khamenei is the ultimate authority behind all major decisions of the state, including economic and foreign policy, and he’s also the de facto head of several large religious foundations that run some of the country’s biggest conglomerates and pension funds. It’s this consolidation of military power and economic influence that has helped the Islamic Republic, in its current manifestation, to maintain an iron grip on politics. All of Iran’s major state institutions, from the state broadcaster (which has a complete monopoly on broadcast services) to the judiciary, are managed by people close to the Supreme Leader or are politically aligned with him. Since last year’s election of Raisi, all levers of Iran’s state and government have been under the control of hardliners who fiercely defend the centrality of their Islamic ideology and the use of the Guidance Patrols has increased.

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