How Iran’s protests over dress codes stoked public anger

The September death of a young woman in police custody after being arrested for violating Iran’s strict dress code sparked violent protests across the country. Popular anger initially focused on the so-called Orientation Patrol – officers who target women they deem poorly dressed in public – but quickly widened to encompass decades-long grievances against the government in general. Unlike previous protests, the current protests have united people across class and ethnic lines and across provincial borders. Protesters have faced a major crackdown from security forces, which retain a strong grip on the country as they seek to protect the clerical establishment.

1. What caused the protests?

The immediate trigger was the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, which was announced on September 16. According to state media, she had traveled from the western province of Kurdistan with her family to Tehran, where an orientation patrol team detained her outside a metro station, saying she was dressed inappropriately. Amini was forced into a van and taken to the police station, according to an account by the reformist newspaper Shargh. Orientation patrols have increased their activity since the election last year of conservative Ebrahim Raisi as Iranian president. After news broke of Amini’s death, Iranian state television released CCTV footage of Amini collapsing in a chair and onto the floor. Tehran police said she suffered from “heart failure”. Her father, Amjad Amini, told the BBC that doctors found her collapsed outside the hospital with no explanation of who she was or what happened to her. She fell into a coma and died two days later. Her family accused the authorities of beating her and covering her up, saying she had no underlying health conditions.

2. How deep is the anger?

Large protests have been reported in dozens of cities across Iran. They have transcended ethnic boundaries, touching a particularly sensitive nerve in the Kurdish community of Mahsa Amini in western Iran, where people have long complained of being ostracized by the state. Oil workers also joined the protests, staging sympathy strikes at two Persian Gulf facilities, according to social media. Union action in the energy sector was crucial to the 1979 Islamic Revolution which overthrew the Iranian monarchy. Celebrities, politicians and athletes have condemned the police on social media and criticized the orientation patrols. The young women took off and in many cases burned their headscarves or cut their hair in public to show their solidarity with Amini. Footage of the protests on social media, none of which can be verified by Bloomberg, showed protesters pushing back against security forces, demonstrating a level of fearlessness not seen in previous protests.

3. Why did the anger spread to other causes?

The unrest taps into broader frustration with hardline Iranian leaders over the state of the heavily sanctioned economy, entrenched corruption and social restrictions. Many of the grievances cited by protesters in slogans and songs date back decades.

4. What are the demonstrators demanding?

One of the most unusual aspects of the protests is that they are led by women. At a minimum, protesters want laws mandating the compulsory wearing of the hijab (the term used in Islam to describe modest dress) for all women from the age of nine to be overturned. More broadly, they want Iranian law to be less governed by religious dictates that typically emanate from elderly clerics who are often out of touch with society. Many protests have included chants calling for the complete end of the Islamic Republic. The rules stipulate a “tchador” – a black cape that wraps the body from head to toe – or long loose overcoats and tightly tied scarves. The laws came into effect after the revolution when exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, overthrowing the pro-Western Shah. They immediately became unpopular among the country’s educated middle class and the divided activists who had fought for the revolution. Over the years, women have gradually pushed the boundaries of what is allowed. Shawls and loose dresses, often open and worn with leggings, are common clothing in most cities; this is how Amini was dressed when she was detained.

5. Are these the first protests against hijab laws?

Opposition to the dress code has been a feature of the country’s tightly controlled civil society since the revolution. The first major protests took place on International Women’s Day in 1979, when secular and religious women joined forces to challenge the bill at rallies in Tehran. In recent years, public rebukes have taken the form of silent acts of protest, such as in 2017 when a number of women were photographed standing on electrical cabinets and public benches in Tehran, holding their headscarves aloft . They were all arrested and some were seen pushed to the ground aggressively by police. In August, a woman named Sepideh Rashno was arrested and forced to confess on state television after she was filmed arguing with a chador-clad individual who was harassing another young woman because of her dress. . Rashno’s face showed clear signs of bruising and swelling.

6. How have the authorities reacted to the current protests?

Security forces, which include armed riot police, plainclothes security forces and a religious militia known as the Basij, attempted to quell the protests by charging protesters with tear gas, batons and guns. Tasers. There are numerous reports of the use of riot guns and paintball guns. Several social media videos, which cannot be verified by Bloomberg, showed riot police bludgeoning people over the head and body. The Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights said at least 185 people had been killed so far, including 19 children. Despite this, it appears authorities have not resorted to killing as much as they did during protests in November 2019, when human rights groups said hundreds of people were shot dead in the streets. On October 4, in his first comments on the protests, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pledged his support for the security forces, denouncing protesters for defying the police and saying the protests were engineered by the United States. United and Israel. There were reports that the Orientation Patrol had disappeared from the streets, but it was unclear if this would last.

7. What were previous events about?

The biggest national challenge to government came in 2009 from the so-called Green Movement, sparked by allegations of fraud in the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The protests have largely focused on political issues and have drawn millions of middle-class Iranians to Tehran. The state moved quickly to stifle dissent, with dozens killed, hundreds arrested, and internet access significantly hampered. But the protests continue to erupt and be suppressed:

• IN MAY 2022, protests erupted in southwestern Iran after a poorly constructed 10-storey building commissioned by a government official collapsed, killing at least 40 people.

• IN JANUARY 2020, Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down an airliner, killing all 176 people on board, sparking protests. Public anger has been fueled by the security establishment’s incompetence and efforts to hide state culpability for days.

• IN NOVEMBER 2019, protests were triggered by a sharp and sudden increase in the price of petrol ordered by the government, which subsidizes fuel. Iranians were already under pressure from US sanctions, imposed the previous year by then-President Donald Trump. Security forces responded with lethal force.

• IN LATE 2017, Iranians took to the streets to express their frustration over economic insecurity in protests that spilled over into opposition to the regime.

• In the oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan, which has a large population of Arabs, a minority in predominantly Persian Iran, protests against corruption and poverty are common, prompting a crackdown by security forces. security.

8. What is the state of the opposition in Iran?

There is no legitimate and organized opposition inside Iran. People criticize leaders privately, but such views are rarely reflected in the country’s tightly regulated media. The only political factions that can work are those that support the fundamental values ​​of the Islamic Republic. Secularists, communists, and groups that promote religions other than Islam are effectively banned. Iranian politicians fall broadly into three categories: ultra-conservatives like Khamenei, moderate or pragmatic conservatives like former President Hassan Rouhani or Ali Larijani, and reformists like former President Mohammad Khatami. Reformers believe that the political system should be open to improvement. However, their popularity and influence have declined significantly since Rouhani’s government broke several promises to improve civil liberties. His administration has also been widely accused of mismanaging the economy after the United States reimposed sanctions in 2018 after scrapping a 2015 deal over Iran’s nuclear program.

9. What protects the current system?

Khamenei has built a strong relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the largest and most powerful wing of the Iranian military, which has helped strengthen his position. Khamenei is the ultimate authority behind all major state decisions, including economic and foreign policy, and he is also the de facto head of several major religious foundations that run some of the country’s largest conglomerates and pension funds. . It is this consolidation of military power and economic influence that has helped the Islamic Republic, in its current manifestation, maintain an iron grip on politics. All of Iran’s main state institutions, from the state broadcaster (which has a complete monopoly on broadcast services) to the judiciary, are run by people close to the supreme leader or are politically aligned with him. Since Raisi’s election last year, all the levers of Iranian state and government have been under the control of hardliners who fiercely defend the centrality of their Islamic ideology.

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