Death in custody sparks wider protests over treatment of women in Iran

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Protests have erupted across Iran in recent days after a 22-year-old woman died while in the custody of morality police for breaking the country’s strictly enforced Islamic dress code.

The death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for her allegedly loose headscarf, or hijab, sparked bold displays of defiance, facing beatings and possible arrest.

Many Iranians, especially young people, have come to view Amini’s death as part of the Islamic Republic’s brutal crackdown on dissent and the increasingly violent treatment of young women by the morality police.

Here’s a look at what sparked the protests and where they could lead.

What’s going on in Iran?

During street protests, some women ripped 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 during a protest demonstration.

During some demonstrations, protesters clashed with police and thick clouds of tear gas were seen rising in the capital, Tehran. The demonstrators were also chased and beaten with truncheons by the Basij on motorbikes.

The Basij, volunteers of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, have violently suppressed protests in the past, including over water rights and the country’s cratered economy.

Yet some protesters are still chanting “death to the dictator”, targeting both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s theocracy, despite the threat of arrest, imprisonment and even the possibility of a death sentence.

So far, at least six protesters have been killed.

What caused the protests?

Iranian morality police arrested Amini on September 13 in Tehran, where she was traveling from her hometown in the western Kurdish region of the country. She collapsed in a police station and died three days later.

The police detained her because she wore her hijab too loosely. Iran requires women to wear the headscarf so as to completely cover their hair when in public.

Only Afghanistan under the Taliban regime now actively enforces a similar law. Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has scaled back enforcement in recent years.

Police deny Amini was abused and say she died of a heart attack. President Ebrahim Raisi has promised an investigation.

Amini’s family say she had no heart history and were prevented from seeing her body before she was buried.

Protests erupted after his funeral in the Kurdish town of Saqez on Saturday and quickly spread to other parts of the country, including Tehran.

How are women treated in Iran?

Iranian women have full access to education, work outside the home and hold public office. But they are required to dress modestly in public, which includes wearing the hijab as well as long, loose dresses. It is forbidden for unmarried men and women to mix.

People flee from riot police during a protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in downtown Tehran, Iran. Image: AP Photo

The rules, which date back to the days following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, are enforced by the vice squad. The force, officially known as the Guidance Patrol, is stationed in public areas. It is made up of both men and women.

Enforcement was eased under former President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate who at one point accused the morality police of being too aggressive. In 2017, the force leader said he would no longer arrest women for breaking the dress code.

But under Raisi, a diehard elected last year, the morality police seem to have gone wild. The UN human rights office says young women have been slapped, beaten with batons and pushed into police vehicles in recent months.

How has Iran reacted to the protests?

Iranian leaders have vowed to investigate the circumstances of Amini’s death while accusing unnamed foreign countries and exiled opposition groups of using it as a pretext to foment unrest. This is a common pattern at protests in recent years.

Ruling clerics in Iran view the United States as a threat to the Islamic Republic and believe that adopting Western customs undermines society.

Khamenei himself has seized on the so-called “color” protests in Europe and elsewhere as foreign interventions – not as people demonstrating for more rights.

Tensions have been particularly high since Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and imposed crippling sanctions.

The Biden administration has been working with European allies for two years to revive the deal. Negotiations appear to be at an impasse, as non-proliferation experts warn Iran has enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb if it chooses to build one. The Islamic Republic insists that its program is peaceful.

Tehran’s governor said authorities arrested three foreign nationals during protests in the capital, without giving further details.

Iranian security forces have arrested at least 25 people, and the governor of Kurdistan province says three people were killed by armed groups in unrest related to the protests, without giving further details. The number of people killed is now at least six.

Activists and human rights groups have accused Iranian security forces of killing protesters during other protests, such as those over gas prices in 2019.

Could the protests bring down the government?

Iran’s ruling clerics have weathered several waves of protests dating back decades, eventually crushing them with brute force.

The most serious challenge to cleric power has been the Green Movement that emerged after the country’s disputed presidential election in 2009 and called for far-reaching reforms; millions of Iranians took to the streets.

Authorities responded with a brutal crackdown, with the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia opening fire on protesters and launching waves of arrests. Opposition leaders have been placed under house arrest.

Among those killed was Neda Agha Soltan, a 27-year-old woman who became an icon of the protest movement after she was shot and bled to death in a video seen by millions on social media.

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