Explainer: Mass protests rock Iran over death of young woman

The death last week of Mahsa Amini, 22, after Iran’s notorious morality police arrested her for believing she was not dressed conservatively enough, sparked one of the waves of the most intense popular anger the country has seen in years, as well as a deluge of condemnations from abroad.

For the past week, protesters, mostly young women and men, have taken to the streets in dozens of Iranian cities. The scale of the the protests surprised the authorities, who responded with guns, beatings and telecommunications cuts in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the unrest. State television reported 17 dead, including two security guards. A rights group says the total number of people killed could be at least double.

What will the protests mean for the hardline government of the country? And how do they compare to previous episodes of unrest?

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

Why did this death trigger such anger?

Amini, a Kurdish woman from the northwest city of Saqez, was visiting Tehran on September 29. 13 when she was detained by the vice police (the Gasht-e Ershad, or Orientation Patrols), who said she was wearing tight pants and not wearing her headscarf properly, in violation of a law that requires women to wear the hijab and loose clothing in order to disguise their figure in public.

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

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

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

Many Iranian women have long called for the so-called hijab laws to be abolished, but Amini’s death struck a chord like few events have – perhaps because she was young, modest and a resident of the outside visiting the capital. Whatever the reason, they reacted to news of his death by staging protests, 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 protests have become a catch-all for other longstanding grievances, including those left by the 2019 mass protests on the collapse of the Iranian economy paralyzed by the sanctions. These protests have led to the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with hundreds of people – some reports say as many as 1,500 – dead.

The absence of civil liberties, the dismal economic conditions and the turbulent negotiations with the West reinstating a moribund nuclear deal and rolling back sanctions have all fueled broader anger.

The Iranian presidential election of 2021, which brought to power the hard-line Ebrahim Raisi as the undisputed candidate, has further marginalized large sections of society. Raisi reversed many of the reforms of the past two decades and strengthened the morality police.

In June, morality police arrested a young woman named Sepideh Rashnou, who had debated 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 confessing that she had acted inappropriately. The confession went viral.

What is the current situation ?

The past six days have seen anti-government protests in around 80 towns and villages, some presenting an open challenge to the government with slogans targeting Khamenei. There were reports of protesters setting waste containers alight, blocking access to streets and torching police vehicles as riot police responded with tear gas, water cannons and beatings.

Video clips of protesters apparently gunned down in different cities have gone viral, while a hashtag with Amini’s name has been retweeted around 30 million times, prompting the government to block or reduce internet servicesincluding messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

The death toll remains unclear, but human rights groups say at least 36 people have been killed. Authorities said they would release official figures later. On Thursday night, security forces launched a huge crackdown targeting social activists and journalists, with hundreds currently in detention.

Hengaw, a Kurdish rights group based in Norway, said on Wednesday 15 people were killed, along with 733 injured and 600 others arrested.

On Friday, the government staged its own counter-protest, gathering thousands of people in Tehran and echoing the status line that the protests were part of a foreign-backed plot against Iran’s leadership. Netblocks, an internet monitoring group, reported on Friday that internet services had been disrupted for the third time in the past week, with some of the toughest restrictions since the 2019 crackdown.

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

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

It’s hard to get precise numbers on the size of the protests, but it’s clear the protests pose the most serious challenge to the government since 2019. Yet where these riots have been caused by economic concerns – the cause immediate there was a rise in the price of gasoline — Protests are now more socially focused, with even religious conservatives worried about the behavior of the morality police.

Another important difference is that the protests have seen a more aggressive approach from protesters more willing to retaliate against security forces. The scale of the violence, at least according to the clips and videos, seems 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 as he spoke of the West’s “double standards” when it comes to human rights.

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

Other officials have used it standard tactic of demonizing protesters. Wednesday, the governor of Tehran. Mohsen Mansouri claimed in a tweet that many of those protesting “used to witness rallies and sometimes riots”, adding that just under half of them had “files and important files in various police, security and judicial institutions”.

He also claimed a day earlier that key organizers were “trained” to stir up trouble.

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

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

Special Envoy Omid Khazani reported from Tehran and writer Bulos from Amman, Jordan.