1. What triggered the protests?
The direct cause was the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, which was announced on September 16, according to state media, she had traveled from the western Kurdistan region with her family to Tehran, where there is an extension patrol. The team detained her outside a metro station, claiming that she was inappropriately dressed. Amini was forced into a minibus and taken to a police station, according to an account in the reformist Al Sharq newspaper. Following news of her death, Iranian state television released CCTV footage of Amini collapsing on a chair and on the floor. Tehran police said she had suffered from “heart failure”. Her father, Amjad Amini, told the BBC that doctors found her collapsed outside the hospital without any explanation for her or what had 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 did not have underlying health conditions.
2. How deep is the anger?
Large protests have been reported in dozens of cities across Iran. They crossed ethnic lines, touching a particularly sensitive nerve in the Kurdish community of Mahsa Amini in western Iran, where people have long complained of being marginalized by the state. Celebrities, politicians and athletes condemned the police on social media, and also criticized the extension patrols, which increased their activity after the election of Governor Ebrahim Raisi last year to the Iranian presidency. Several actors and footballers who spoke were arrested. Young women took off their headscarves and, in many cases, burned them or cut their hair in public in solidarity with Amini. One of the oddest aspects of the protests is that they are led by women.
3. Why did anger spread for other reasons?
The unrest capitalizes on the broader frustration of Iran’s hard-line rulers over the state of the heavily sanctioned economy, entrenched corruption and social restrictions. Footage of the protests on social media, none of which can be verified by Bloomberg, showed protesters beating security forces, demonstrating a level of courage not seen in previous protests. The same videos show protesters being shot, beaten and attacked by riot police.
4. What are the protesters demanding?
They at least want to abolish laws that mandate mandatory hijab (the term used in Islam to describe modest dress) for all females from the age of nine. More broadly, they want Iranian law to be less governed by religious dictatorships that usually come from elderly clerics who are often distant from society. The rules stipulate a chador – a black cloak that envelops the body from head to toe – or long, loose-fitting overcoats and tightly tied head scarves. The laws went into effect after the 1979 revolution when exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, ousting the pro-Western shah. They immediately became unpopular among the country’s educated middle class and divided activists who fought for the revolution. Over the years, women have gradually gone beyond the limits of what is permitted. Loose shawls and robes, often open and worn with leggings, are common garments in most cities and are similar to what Amini wore when she was held.
5. Is this the first protest against the headscarf laws?
Opposition to dress codes has been a feature of the country’s tightly controlled civil society since the revolution. The first major protests on International Women’s Day were in 1979 when secular and religious women joined forces to challenge the proposed law in rallies in Tehran. In recent years, public reprimands have taken the form of silent acts of protest as in 2017 when a number of women were photographed standing on public electric cabinets and benches in Tehran, holding their headscarves aloft. They were all arrested, and some were seen being pushed hard on the ground by the police. In August, a woman named Sibedeh Rachno was arrested and forced to make a confession on state television after she was filmed arguing with a chador-wearing person who was molesting another young woman over her clothes. Rachno’s face showed clear signs of bruising and swelling.
6. How have the authorities responded to the current protests?
Security forces, which include armed riot police, plainclothes security forces and the religious militia known as the Basij, have attempted to quell the protests by accusing protesters of batons and electric detonators. There are widespread reports of the use of riot gear and paintball guns. The Oslo-based Iranian Human Rights Organization said at least 133 people have been killed so far. Despite this, it appears that the authorities did not resort to killing as much as they did during the November 2019 protests, when rights groups said hundreds of people were shot dead on the streets of various towns. On October 4, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his first comments in front of the protests, pledged his support for the security forces, denouncing protesters for defying the police and claiming that the demonstrations were designed by the United States and Israel. There have been reports of the Extension Patrol disappearing from the streets, but it is not clear if this will continue.
7. What were the previous protests?
The government’s biggest domestic challenge came in 2009 from the so-called Green Movement, which was sparked by allegations of fraud in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election. The demonstrations focused largely on political issues and attracted millions of middle-class Iranians in Tehran. The state reacted swiftly to crushing dissent, with dozens killed, hundreds arrested and internet access severely hampered. But the protests continue to flare up and are being suppressed:
• In May 2022, demonstrations erupted in southwestern Iran after a 10-story building, poorly constructed and commissioned by a government official, collapsed, killing at least 40 people.
• In January 2020, Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down a passenger plane, killing all 176 people on board, sparking protests. Popular anger fueled the incompetence of the security establishment and efforts to hide the state’s guilt for days.
• In November 2019, protests erupted due to the sharp and sudden increase in the price of gasoline requested by the government, which subsidizes the fuel. The Iranians were already under pressure from US sanctions, imposed the previous year by President Donald Trump. Security forces responded with lethal force.
• In late 2017, Iranians took to the streets to express their frustration with economic insecurity in protests that expanded to include opposition to the regime.
• In the oil-rich Khuzestan province in the southwest, which has a large Arab population, a minority mostly from Persian Iran, protests against corruption and poverty are spreading, which has led to a crackdown by security forces.
8. What is the state of the opposition in Iran?
There is no legitimate and organized opposition inside Iran. People are particularly critical of leadership, but these views are rarely reflected in heavily regulated media. The only political factions that can operate are those that support the core values of the Islamic Republic. Secularists, communists, and groups that promote religions other than Islam are effectively banned. Iranian politicians fall roughly into three categories: ultra-conservatives such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, moderate or pragmatic conservatives such as former President Hassan Rouhani or Ali Larijani, and reformists such as former President Mohammad Khatami. Reformers believe the political system should be open to improvement, but their popularity and influence have declined since the Rouhani government – it is seen as failing to deliver on numerous promises to improve civil liberties, and has also been blamed for mismanaging the economy after the US abandoned. The 2015 nuclear deal took place four years ago and reimposed sanctions.
9. What protects the current system?
Khamenei forged a strong relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the largest and most powerful wing of the Iranian military, which helped solidify his position. Khamenei is the ultimate authority behind all major state decisions, including economic and foreign policy, and is also the de facto head of several large religious institutions 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 guise, maintain its iron grip on politics. All of Iran’s major state institutions, from the state broadcaster (which has a complete monopoly on broadcasting services) to the judiciary, are run by people close to or politically aligned with the Supreme Leader. Since Raisi’s election last year, all tools of the Iranian state and government have been under the control of hardliners who fiercely defend the centrality of their Islamic ideology.
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