Explanator: Mass protests agitate Iran over the young woman’s death

The last week of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death, after Iran’s infamous 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. for years, since as well as a deluge of condemnation from abroad.

For a week now, demonstrators, mostly young women and men, have taken to the streets in dozens of Iranian cities. The scale of the demonstrations stunned the authorities, who responded with guns, beatings and interruptions to telecommunications in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the riots. State television has estimated 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.

What will the protests mean for the country’s uncompromising government? And how do they compare to previous bouts of unrest?

Here’s a look at an unstable situation that some fear will produce further bloodshed in the coming days.

Why did this death spark so much anger?

Amini, a Kurdish woman from the northwestern city of Saqez, was visiting Tehran on September 13 when she was arrested by the morality police (the Gasht-e Ershad, or orientation patrols), who said she was wearing tight pants and not wearing the veil correctly, in violation of a law that requires women to wear hijabs and loose clothing in order to mask their figures in public.

Activists said she was beaten with a truncheon in the head and sustained other injuries severe enough to put her in a coma. Three days later she was dead. Authorities deny having beaten Amini and in a statement insisted that the cause of her death was sudden heart failure, possibly due to pre-existing conditions.

“They are lying,” Persian Amjad Amini, the young woman’s father, told the BBC on Thursday. “She hasn’t been to any hospital in the past 22 years, except for a few cold-related illnesses.”

He added that his son had witnessed the beating of his sister in the van and in the police station and had been abused by the officers himself.

Many Iranian women have long called for the abolition of so-called hijab laws, but Amini’s death touched the chords in ways that few events have, perhaps because she was young, modest and an out-of-town citizen visiting the capital. Whatever the reason, they responded to the news of her death by organizing demonstrations, cutting their hair, burning the hijab and shouting, “Death to the dictator!” in a broadside directed against Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Are the protests only about Amini’s death?

The demonstrations have grown to a call for other long-filtered grievances, including those left over from the 2019 mass protests over the collapsing and sanctioned Iranian economy. Those demonstrations led to the bloodiest repression since the 1979 Islamic revolution, with hundreds of people – some reports say up to 1,500 – dead.

Lack of civil liberties, poor economic conditions, and unstable negotiations with the West to restore a moribund nuclear deal and lift sanctions have fueled a wider sense of anger.

The 2021 Iranian presidential elections, which brought the intransigent Ebrahim Raisi to power as the undisputed candidate, further marginalized large swaths of society. Raisi has undone many of the reforms of the past two decades and strengthened the police of morality.

In June, the morality police arrested a young woman named Sepideh Rashnou, who had discussed the need for mandatory hijab with a pro-government woman on a bus in Tehran. A week later, state TV showed Rashnou with bruises on her face that she confessed to acting inappropriately. The confession went viral.

What is the current situation?

The past six days have seen anti-government protests in some 80 cities and towns, with some presenting an open challenge to the government with slogans targeting Khamenei. Reports emerged of protesters setting waste containers on fire, blocking access to roads and setting police vehicles on fire as riot police respond with tear gas, water cannons and beatings.

Video clips of gunned-down demonstrators in several cities went viral, while a hashtag by the name of Amini was retweeted about 30 million times, prompting the government to block or cut down on internet services, including messaging like WhatsApp.

The casualty register remains unclear, but human rights groups say at least 36 people have been killed. Authorities have said they will release official data later. On Thursday night, security forces launched a massive trawl net targeting social activists and journalists, with hundreds now in custody.

Hengaw, a Kurdish rights group based in Norway, said 15 people had been killed by Wednesday, along with 733 injured and another 600 arrested.

On Friday, the government staged its own counter-demonstration, with thousands of people gathering in Tehran and echoing the state’s line that the demonstrations were part of a foreign-backed conspiracy against the Iranian leadership. Netblocks, an internet monitoring group, reported Friday that internet services were shut down for the third time in the past week, with some of the most severe restrictions since the 2019 crackdown.

Amini’s death has also inspired protests abroad, including 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 have failed?

It is difficult to find precise figures on the size of the demonstration, but it is clear that the protests pose the most serious challenge for the government since 2019. However, where those riots were caused by economic concerns – the proximate cause was a rise in gas prices. – demonstrations are now more focused on social aspects, with even religious conservatives raising concerns about the behavior of the moral police.

Another important difference is that the protests have seen a more aggressive turn by the protesters more willing to fight against the security forces. The scale of the violence, at least according to clips and videos, appears to be greater.

The controversy also forced the government to intervene. Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Raisi said he assured the Amini family that the incident would be investigated, even though he spoke of the “double standard” when it comes to human rights.

“Our utmost concern is the safeguarding of the rights of every citizen,” he said. “If his death was due to negligence, it will certainly be investigated and I promise to pursue the matter regardless of whether the international forums take a stand or not.”

Other officials have resorted to the standard tactic of demonizing protesters. Wednesday Tehran Gov. Mohsen Mansouri said in a tweet that many of those who demonstrated “have a history of participating in rallies and sometimes riots”, adding that just under half of them had “significant documents and files in various judicial, police and safety “.

He also said the day before that the main organizers were “trained” to create unrest.

Despite that rhetoric, the protests garnered the support of artists, athletes, singers and celebrities.

“Don’t be afraid of strong women. Perhaps the day will come when they will be your only army, “tweeted Ali Karimi, a famous Iranian footballer. Mohammad Fazeli, a prominent sociologist, said:” The responsibility for ending the violence rests with the establishment that controls the media, the decision making and everything else. “

The special correspondent Omid Khazani reported from Tehran and staff writer Bulos from Amman, Jordan.