Explainer: Mass protests roil Iran over young woman’s death

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last week, after Iran’s notorious Morality Police arrested her for believing she was not dressed conservatively enough, sparked one of the most intense waves of popular anger the country has seen in since years has experienced a spate of convictions from abroad.

For the past week, demonstrators, mostly young women and men, have been taking to the streets in dozens of Iranian cities. The scale of the demonstrations has stunned the authorities, who have responded with guns, beatings and telecommunications shutdowns in a vain attempt to quell the unrest. State television put the death toll at 17, including two security officers. A human rights group says the total number of people killed could be at least double that.

What do the protests mean for the country’s uncompromising government? And how does it compare to previous riots?

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

Why did this death cause such anger?

Amini, a Kurdish woman from the northwestern city of Saqez, was visiting Tehran on September 13 when she was arrested by morality police (Gascht-e Ershad, or lead patrols), who said she was wearing tight pants and not wearing her headscarf properly, which was against violates a law that requires women to wear a hijab and loose-fitting clothes to hide their figure in public.

Activists said she was hit in the head with a baton and sustained further injuries severe enough to put her in a coma. She was dead three days later. Authorities deny hitting Amini and insisted in a statement that the cause of death was sudden heart failure, possibly due to previous illnesses.

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

He added his son saw his sister being beaten in the van and at the police station and was himself beaten by officers.

Many Iranian women have long called for the abolition of so-called hijab laws, but Amini’s death has struck a chord like few events have – perhaps because she was young, humble and visiting from outside the capital. Whatever the reason, they responded to the news of their deaths by holding demonstrations, cutting their hair, burning their hijabs and shouting “Death to the dictator!” in a direct broadside against Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Are the protests only about Amini’s death?

The demonstrations have become a catch-all for other long-standing grievances, including those left over from the 2019 mass protests against Iran’s sanctions-crippled, collapsing economy. These demonstrations resulted in the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, leaving hundreds dead – up to 1,500 by some reports.

The lack of civil liberties, grim economic conditions and bumpy negotiations with the West to restore a moribund nuclear deal and reverse sanctions have all prompted a broader sense of anger.

Iran’s 2021 presidential election, which put hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in power as the undisputed candidate, further marginalized large sections of society. Raisi has reversed many of the reforms of the last two decades and strengthened the morale police.

In June, moral police arrested a young woman, Sepideh Rashnou, who was discussing the need for compulsory hijab with a pro-government woman on a bus in Tehran. A week later, state television showed Rashnou with bruises on her face and an admission that she had behaved inappropriately. The confession went viral.

How is the current situation?

Over the past six days, anti-government protests have erupted in about 80 cities and towns, some openly challenging the government with slogans targeting Khamenei. Reports have surfaced of protesters setting fire to dumpsters, blocking access to roads and setting fire to police vehicles, while riot police responded with tear gas, water cannons and beatings.

Video clips of protesters who appear to have been gunned down in various cities have gone viral, while a hashtag featuring Amini’s name has since been retweeted some 30 million times, urging the government to block or restrict internet services, including messaging apps like WhatsApp.

The death list remains unclear, but human rights groups say at least 36 people were killed. The authorities have announced that official figures will be published later. On Thursday night, security forces launched a massive trawl targeting social activists and journalists, hundreds of whom are now in custody.

Hengaw, a Norway-based Kurdish rights group, said 15 people had been killed, 733 injured and 600 others arrested as of Wednesday.

On Friday, the government held its own counter-demonstration, which saw thousands gather in Tehran and reiterate the state’s line that the demonstrations were part of a foreign-backed conspiracy against the Iranian leadership. Netblocks, an internet surveillance group, reported on Friday that internet services have been disrupted for the third time in the last week, with some of the most severe disruptions since the 2019 raid.

Amini’s death has also sparked protests abroad, including in the US, Canada, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Lebanon, Spain and Turkey.

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

Exact figures on the size of the demonstrations are hard to come by, but it’s clear the protests pose the government’s biggest challenge since 2019. But where these riots were prompted by economic concerns – the immediate cause was a rise in gas prices – the demonstrations are now more focused on social issues, with even religious conservatives raising concerns about the behavior of the vice squad.

Another key difference is that the protests have been more aggressive in their approach by protesters who are more willing to fight back against the security forces. The extent of the violence appears to be greater, at least according to clips and videos.

The controversy has also forced the government to step in. Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Raisi said he had assured the Amini family that the incident was being investigated, although he spoke of the “double of Western standards” when it comes to human rights.

“Our greatest concern is to protect the rights of all citizens,” he said. “If her death was due to negligence then this will definitely be investigated and I promise to follow up the matter whether or not the international forums take a stand.”

Other officials have resorted to standard tactics of demonizing protesters. On Wednesday, Tehran Governor Mohsen Mansouri tweeted that many of the protesters “have taken part in gatherings and sometimes riots in the past,” adding that nearly half of them have “significant records and files in various police, security… – and judicial authorities” have .”

He also claimed a day earlier that core organizers were “trained” to cause riots.

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

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

Special correspondent Khazani reported from Tehran and staff writer Bulos from Amman, Jordan. Explainer: Mass protests roil Iran over young woman’s death

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