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How Iran Protests Over Dress Codes Stoked Broader Public Anger

The death in September of a young woman after she was detained for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code has sparked violent protests across the country. Popular anger was focused initially on the so-called Guidance Patrol -- police officers who target women they deem to be improperly dressed in public -- but soon broadened to encompass decades-long grievances toward the whole theocratic system in place since Iran’s 1979 revolution. Unlike previous protests, the current demonstrations have unified people across class and ethnic lines. Protesters have faced a violent crackdown by security forces, who have killed hundreds of people, according to rights groups. Yet the demonstrations have persisted. 

1. What provoked the protests?

The immediate trigger was the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, which was announced Sept. 16. According to state media, she’d traveled from the western province of Kurdistan with family to Tehran, where a Guidance Patrol team detained her outside a metro station claiming she was inappropriately dressed. The Guidance Patrol increased its activity after the election last year of conservative Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency. Amini was taken to a police station, according to an account in the reformist Shargh newspaper. After news of her death emerged, Iranian state TV released CCTV footage of Amini collapsing over a chair and onto the floor. Tehran’s police force said she suffered “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 had happened to her. She went into a coma and died two days later. Her family have accused authorities of beating her and covering it up, saying she had no underlying health conditions.

2. Who’s protesting? 

The protests have transcended ethnic lines, touching an especially raw nerve in Amini’s Kurdish community in western Iran, where people have long complained of being sidelined by the state. The response of the security forces in that region has been especially harsh; Kurdish rights groups frequently report that members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s premier military force, have used heavy weapons to kill protesters. Authorities have accused Kurdish activists and political parties, which operate from exile in Iraq, of separatism and of stoking the protests, allegations they have denied. The protests have also drawn support from industrial workers, who have staged several strikes, including at key oil and gas refineries. Young women, who’ve had a heavy presence in the protests and led them in the beginning, have removed and in many cases burned their head scarves or cut their hair in public to show solidarity with Amini. They’ve also been targeted by security forces. Hundreds have been arrested, and human rights groups have reported cases where they’ve been tortured and raped in jail. 

3. Why has the anger spread to other causes?

The unrest has tapped into broader frustration over what many see as the clerical establishment’s prioritizing its pious base of supporters over everyone else. Religious restrictions, such as an official ban on mixed gender parties and laws allowing a husband to control his wife’s movements, are seen as stifling, particularly to younger Iranians. Many of the protesters’ chants call for unwinding the Islamic nature of the state and specifically target Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, clerics, the Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic plainclothes militia whose members storm gatherings looking for opportunities to reprimand people for what they consider to be unholy behavior. Those who are disenchanted tend to blame the regime’s anti-Western rhetoric, hostility toward the US, and involvement in regional conflicts for the state of the heavily sanctioned economy. There’s also longstanding anger over entrenched corruption, and many citizens complain that the regime has become more authoritarian since Raisi became president. 

4. What are protesters demanding?

At the start, the minimum the protesters wanted was a fundamental reform to the laws imposed after the revolution mandating hijab, the term used in Islam to describe modest dress, on all females from the age of nine. The rules stipulate that females wear a “chador” -- a black cloak that envelopes the body from head to toe -- or long, loose-fitting overcoats and tightly tied head scarves. Over the years, women have gradually pushed the boundaries of what’s permissible. Loose shawls and robes, often open and worn with leggings, are common attire in most cities; that’s how Amini was dressed when she was detained. As the demonstrations have expanded, protesters have broadened their demands to making Iranian law in general less governed by religious dictates. 

5. How have authorities responded to the protests?

Multiple videos shared on Twitter by human rights groups and dissident news outlets, which can’t be verified by Bloomberg, have shown heavily armed riot police beating many protesters with clubs and shooting at them. According to the US-based Human Rights Activists in Iran, which monitors the protests, at least 419 people have been killed by security forces, including 60 children. The group says at least 17,000 people have been arrested and Iran’s judiciary has so far sentenced at least six people to death. On Oct. 4, in his first comments addressing the protests, Khamenei pledged his support for the security forces, denouncing protesters for challenging the police and claiming the demonstrations are designed by the US and Israel. There were reports that the Guidance Patrol had disappeared from the streets, but it was unclear whether this would last. Officials haven’t released a death toll since Sept. 24, when they said 41 people had died. They also deny that the security forces have been responsible for any of the deaths of protesters. The authorities have blamed many of the deaths on unknown “terrorists,” suicide, accidental death, poison and, in one case, infection from a dog bite. 

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