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13 October 2022

How Mahsa Amini’s death set Iran on fire

When 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after being arrested by police in Tehran, months of frustrations with the country’s repressive regime erupted.

By Megan Gibson

It began with a trip to Tehran. Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from north-west Iran, was visiting family in the capital with her brother in September when she was detained by the country’s notorious ­morality police. The “guidance patrol” reportedly arrested Amini for violating Iran’s strict hijab law, which requires all women to cover their hair. Eyewitnesses reported that police beat Amini with batons; she spent three days in a coma, before dying in a hospital on 16 September. Authorities told her family that she had suffered from sudden heart failure; her family insists that she’d been in good health.

As news of Amini’s death spread across Iran, protests and violent demonstrations soon followed in dozens of towns and cities. Her death has catalysed months of frustrations with Iran’s repressive regime, particularly for women, who are routinely harassed and abused by police tasked with enforcing modest dress. Footage shows Iranian women marching, chanting and ripping off their headscarves, before tossing them on to bonfires in the street. In many of the clips shared online, chants of, “Death to the dictator!” – in reference to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei – can be heard; other videos show violent confrontations with security forces, with Iranians hurling objects and petrol bombs at police.

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While the uprising is the largest anti-government protest since the Green Movement in 2009, when millions of Iranians took to the streets following a contested presidential election, discontent in the country has been intensifying. In the past year there have been labour, teacher and farmer protests following years of foreign sanctions and economic mismanagement by the regime. Yet the anti-veil demonstrations appear angrier and more violent than these. “There has been a crescendo to the demonstrations,” Sanam Vakil, the deputy director and senior research fellow of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, told me, “in terms of violence, and in terms of the pushback against the police taking place on the streets.”

In a country where the hijab was once banned, public views on the veil are mixed. Yet even Iranians who support the idea of women wearing the hijab have largely rejected the way the regime has mandated – and policed – it. A survey in 2020 found that 72 per cent of Iranians oppose the compulsory hijab, which was enshrined in law in 1983. Some form of morality police force has operated in Iran since the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. President Ebrahim Raisi, who took office in August 2021, has increased funding to clamp down on arbitrary violations of laws on dress and behaviour. It’s notable that while women have led the demonstrations, men have marched alongside them. Even Iran’s clerics have been divided on the laws: the Financial Times reported on 23 September that Morteza Javadi Amoli, an influential cleric, said after the death of Amini that it was a “strategic mistake to deal with religious and cultural issues through security and police measures”.

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As with past uprisings in Iran and abroad, social media has played a key role. In a country where press freedom has long been quashed, videos of civil disobedience have spread via Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the few social media platforms not previously blocked by the regime. Recognising the power of these visual dispatches, the government has wasted little time disrupting communications: several mobile networks have been disabled, and access to WhatsApp and Instagram has become patchy.

Clamping down on the internet is part of the Islamic Republic’s well-established method for dealing with public unrest. So too is the arrest, often violent, of protesters and rioters. Videos from protests in late September show security forces firing rubber bullets and using tear gas and batons on civilians. More than 1,200 demonstrators have been arrested, according to Iranian official reports, including many journalists. State media has put the number of deaths at 41 so far, though Amnesty International estimates that the real total is far higher.

Despite the brutal response by the regime, there is hope among local activists and foreign observers that the unrest will augur a permanent change in the country. Satellite protests in support of Iranian women have taken place in countries around the world, including the UK, Turkey and Canada.

Western leaders have also rallied behind Iranian civil society. On 22 September the US announced fresh sanctions on the country’s morality police, and the next day changed existing sanctions to allow tech companies to operate more easily in Iran to counter the state’s internet restrictions.

The regime is not invulnerable, and efforts to quell the unrest haven’t yet been successful. Yet the state has stamped out larger and more violent uprisings in the past, most notably the Green Movement 13 years ago. Analysts warn that despite the momentum behind the protests, regime change isn’t likely. “The Islamic Republic has a monopoly on force and they’re not afraid to use it,” says Chatham House’s Sanam Vakil. “I’ve been watching protests in Iran since 1999 – and they’ve all ended one way.”

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This article was originally published on 29 September 2022. It has been republished in light of continuing protests in Iran.

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion