Young people in Iran are fighting back against the country's feared morality police like never before, after a young woman died after being taken into custody for not wearing her hijab properly. At least seven people have died in the protests, and hundreds were injured and arrested during the clashes with the riot police over the past few days.
The protests present a real headache for the country’s hardline leadership, as young people show they will not tolerate the repressions that many of their parents have taken for granted.
Young people in cities and towns across Iran have taken to the streets over the last few days, with young women gathering to make a bonfire of their scarves, cutting their hair off in front of crowds of people, and dancing through the streets.
Women are obliged by law to cover their heads, and have been since shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The protests are in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in Tehran after being picked up by the morality police patrol, commonly known as “Ershad” or public guidance patrol. Police said she died after having had a heart attack during a “re-education” session in police custody, but pictures of her in hospital appeared to support her family’s claims that she suffered a head injury. She was last seen by her brother last Tuesday, while being rounded up with other women and forced into a police van.
The Ershad unit within the police cracks down on women deemed immodestly dressed by officers roaming in vans. Hardline President Ibrahim Raisi has cracked down on “un-Islamic” behaviour and his rule has seen an increase in checkpoints by the Ershad. They hand down punishments ranging from a short period of detention to prison and flogging for repeat offenders.
Iran has seen a number of demonstrations in recent years, mainly triggered by economic hardship, but the latest wave of protests is aimed solely at police brutality against women. The scale of these protests is unprecedented and shows the level of mass discontent among the Iranian youth, which normally circumvents authorities and strict Islamic rules in the country. These protests present a challenge to the future of the regime.
Commentators say the protests expose how dangerously out of touch the elites are with the country’s youth. Exiled Iranian journalist Reza Haghighatnejad tweeted that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s silence on the issue shows that “he has not woken up yet.” He wrote: “Sleep, old man, the people are awake.”
In Iran, the government controls everything from media to rights organisations. Security forces are notorious for their brutality against anyone taking to the streets, which makes it all but impossible for any protest movement or genuine opposition group to exist.
Raisi reportedly spoke with Amini’s family and ordered an inquiry into the young woman’s death, but so far, senior figures in the Iranian regime have kept quiet.
Raisi, speaking at the annual UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, accused the western countries of a “double standard” regarding human rights and said that Canada had killed “dozens of innocent women” in reference to indigenous people.
Joe Biden, the US President, referred to Amini’s death after Raisi’s speech, and said: “Today we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran, who right now are anti-government protests to secure their basic rights.”
Despite the harsh crackdown and serious legal measures taken by the authorities against women, people have always found ways around the hijab rules. They have to wear a headscarf and knee-length tunic over their clothes, but many wear skinny jeans and only lightly cover their hair.
The fact that the protests are made up of a lot of young men as well as women, however, shows the momentum of this protest moment. Footage shared on social media showed a group of masked men ambushing a riot police officer holding a stun gun and a baton. This is despite the fact that people can be given the death sentence for fighting back against cops in Iran.
Raisi’s campaign to step up Ershad patrols comes as the country’s clergymen have complained that young people are intent on defying the Islamic rules of the country.
The protests following Amini’s death show just how unpopular Raisi’s policies are among Iran’s youth, but police will not let the protests go ahead unchallenged. Human rights groups said police opened fire on the protesters in the western parts of the country, killing and injuring people.
Police in Tehran released a short clip of CCTV footage from inside the police station showing the moment Amini collapsed, but the reports suggest that she was pushed around when the police picked her up, hit her head with a baton, and then she smacked her head against a car.
The police went on to blame Amini for inappropriate head covering during a press conference, but this has done nothing to dispel the growing anger against the crackdown, and the harassment Iranian women endure in public on a daily basis.
Instead of acknowledging the sentiment in the country, particularly among young people, the Iranian police has blamed its “enemies” for the mass protests, including Kurdish separatist groups in the western part of the country, which has seen massive demonstrations over the last few days. However, some groups clashing with the police are from areas that are traditionally a stronghold of Shia hardliners who support the government.
Hengaw, a Norway-based organisation that monitors human rights in Iran, said seven people had been killed and 450 injured since the start of demonstrations. The group said in a statement that many people who have been injured in the demonstrations have not visited medical centres for fear of arrest.
Nada al-Nashif, the Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that it had received a number of videos and clips of brutal treatment by the police toward women.
“The authorities must stop targeting, harassing, and detaining women who do not abide by the hijab rules,” she added in a statement.
The UN Human Rights Commission has voiced concern in a statement around the latest crackdown on women in Iran. A spokesperson for the UN rights office OHCHR In Geneva, Ravina Shamdasani, said the UN was deeply concerned with the violent crackdown on the protesters.
“The bottom line is that these rules should not exist; women should not be punished for what they are wearing”, she said.
“Women who defy these compulsory veiling rules should not be harassed, should not be subjected to violence and there needs to be a fair investigation.” She added in a statement published on Tuesday.