For four days in Iran, and this week in New York and Berlin, there have been mass protests against the Iranian government, and the presence of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi at the UN. Across Tehran and cities in the Kurdistan province, people have taken to the streets, in violent scuffles which have resulted in an estimated 221 wounded people, 250 arrests and three alleged deaths.
The cause is the death, on Friday, of 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini.
Who is Mahsa Amini?
On 13 September, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, originally from the city of Saqqez in Kurdistan Province, in western Iran, was in Tehran, having travelled there to visit family. She was at the entry of Haqqani Highway with her brother Kiaresh Amini when she was arrested by the regime’s so-called 'Guidance Patrol' and transferred to the 'Moral Security' agency, allegedly for wearing an inappropriate hijab. CCTV videos of the event, released later by the Tehran police, show her collapsing to the ground at the moment of her arrest.
Amini's brother was told she would be taken to a detention centre to undergo a "briefing class" and released shortly afterwards. She never made it. Amini instead arrived at Kasra Hospital, where she died on Friday, after being in a coma for three days. In a now-deleted Instagram post, the hospital claimed she was brain dead on arrival. "Resuscitation was performed on the patient, the heartbeat returned and the patient was admitted to the intensive care unit," they originally wrote, reports The Guardian. "Unfortunately, after 48 hours on Friday, the patient suffered a cardiac arrest again, due to brain death. Despite the efforts of the medical team, they failed to revive her and the patient died."
Witnesses claim she was beaten by the patrol in the van, which was intending to take her to a detention centre.
What has the reaction been?
Once news of Amini's death hit the news, five days of protest began across the country, and globally – thanks to the already-contested presence of Ebrahim Raisi at the UN this week. The hashtag #mashaamini began trending on Twitter, with more than two million mentions; and pro-reform groups and feminist activist groups – including the US based, Iran dedicated, HRANA (Human Rights Activists News Agency) – began mobilising. Protests yesterday resulted in the death of one member of the police and the now widespread burning of headscarves. Amnesty Iran, as well as the US and French governments, have spoken out against her death.
The French foreign affairs ministry called for a fair and transparent investigation into her death, calling it a "profoundly shocking" event. The White House said: "Mahsa Amini's death after injuries sustained while in police custody for wearing an 'improper' hijab is an appalling and egregious front to human rights."
Tehran Police commander Hossein Rahimi claims Amini's death was an "unfortunate accident", saying she had a heart attack due to existing conditions. Amini’s father has hotly contested these allegations, saying he believes he has been given heavily-edited CCTV footage that contradicts her bruising and eye-witness accounts, telling the reformist-leaning Iranian Rouydad24 newspaper: “They said Mahsa had heart disease and epilepsy but as the father who raised her for 22 years, I say loudly that Mahsa did not have any illness. She was in perfect health. The person who hit my daughter should be put on trial in a public court, not a fake trial that results in reprimands and expulsions."
What is the situation for women in Iran?
The fact is, Amini's death was merely a match to an existing powder keg. Though by law, since 1979, women in Iran must wear the hijab in public, in practice this has not been heavily enforced in recent years. That is, until the new president Ebrahim Raisi took power in 2021. Since then, there has been an enormous crackdown on the freedoms of women. On 15 August, he signed an order enforcing the country's dress code with a new list of restrictions.
Article 638 of the Islamic penal code says it is a crime for women to appear in the streets and in public without an Islamic hijab, but it is not clear whether the police have the arbitrary right to arrest citizens under this code without any form of court warrant. In fact, the actions of the so-called 'morality police' have been heavily criticised by the UN Human Rights Office, which says the police have been targeting women, and claims to have verified videos of women being slapped in the face, beaten with batons and thrown into police vans for even just wearing the hijab too loosely. They have even been criticised by two of the most senior Ayatollahs in Iran.
Amini is far from the most high-profile case in recent months – though she is the most high-profile death. In July, 28-year-old writer and artist Sepideh Rashno was arrested for wearing 'inappropriate clothing' and was one of a slew of women (and men) to publicly protest Iran's 'hijab and chastity day' on 12 July, by removing their hijabs on social media. Rashno was then seen on state TV making an official apology. She was wearing full hijab and looked subdued. Human rights organisations, including HRANA, say she showed signs of torture and that she was likely one of many women forced into confessions. Rashno remains in custody, and her case attracted widespread protest and campaigning in August.
Now, Amini's death may have proved to be the last straw, as vast and violent protests continue against the regime. The acting UN high commissioner for human rights, Nada Al-Nashif has said: “Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and allegations of torture and ill-treatment must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated by an independent competent authority, that ensures, in particular, that her family has access to justice and truth."
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