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How Iran Protests Over Dress Codes Stoked Broader Public Anger

The death in September of a young woman in police custody after she was detained for violating Iran’s strict dress code has sparked violent protests across the country. Popular anger was focused initially on the so-called Guidance Patrol -- officers who target women they deem to be improperly dressed in public -- but soon broadened to encompass decades-long grievances toward the government generally. Unlike previous protests, the current demonstrations have unified people over class and ethnic lines and across provincial boundaries. Protesters have faced a major crackdown by security forces, which retain a strong grip on the country as they seek to protect the clerical establishment.

1. What provoked the protests?

The immediate trigger was the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, which was announced on 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. Amini was forced into a minivan and taken to a police station, according to an account in the reformist Shargh newspaper. The Guidance Patrols have increased their activity since the election last year of conservative Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency. After news of Amini’s 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 accused authorities of beating her and covering it up, saying she had no underlying health conditions.

2. How deep is the anger?

Large protests have been reported in scores of cities across Iran. They have transcended ethnic lines, touching an especially raw nerve in Mahsa Amini’s Kurdish community in western Iran, where people have long complained of being sidelined by the state. Oil workers have also joined the protests, staging strikes in solidarity at two facilities on the Persian Gulf, according to social media reports. Industrial action in the energy sector was crucial to the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled Iran’s monarchy. Celebrities, politicians and athletes condemned the police on social media and criticized the Guidance Patrols. Young women have removed and, in many cases, burned their head scarves or cut their hair in public to show solidarity with Amini. Footage of the protests on social media, none of which can be verified by Bloomberg, has shown demonstrators beating back security forces, demonstrating a level of fearlessness unseen in previous protests. 

3. Why has the anger spread to other causes?

The unrest is tapping into broader frustration with Iran’s hard-line rulers over the state of the heavily sanctioned economy, entrenched corruption and social restrictions. Many of the grievances cited by the protesters in slogans and songs go back decades.

4. What are protesters demanding?

One of the most unusual aspects about the protests is that they’re being led by women. At a minimum the protesters want laws imposing mandatory hijab (the term used in Islam to describe modest dress) for all females from the age of nine to be overturned. More broadly, they want Iranian law to be less governed by religious dictats that usually come from elderly clerics who are often out of touch with society. Many of the protests have included chants calling for the complete end of the Islamic Republic. The rules stipulate a “chador” -- a black cloak that envelopes the body from head to toe -- or long, loose-fitting overcoats and tightly tied head scarves. The laws came into effect after the revolution when exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, deposing the pro-Western Shah. They became immediately unpopular among the country’s educated middle class and divided female activists who had fought for the revolution. 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.

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 ever since the revolution. The first major protests were on International Women’s Day in 1979 when both secular and religious women joined forces to challenge the proposed law in rallies in Tehran. In more 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 public electrical cabinets and benches in Tehran, holding their head scarves aloft. They were all arrested, and some were seen being aggressively pushed to the ground by police. In August, a woman named Sepideh Rashno was arrested and forced to make a confession on state TV after being filmed arguing with a chador-clad individual who’d been harassing another young woman over her attire. Rashno’s face showed clear signs of bruises and swelling. 

6. How have authorities responded to the current protests?

The security forces, which include armed riot police, plainclothes security forces and a religious militia known as the Basij, have tried to suppress protests by charging at demonstrators with tear gas, batons and Tasers. There’s widespread reports of riot shotguns and paintball guns being used. Several social media videos, which can’t be verified by Bloomberg, have shown riot police clubbing people on the head and body. The Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights has said at least 185 people have been killed so far, including 19 children. Despite this, it appeared that authorities weren’t resorting to killings to the extent they did during protests in November 2019, when human rights groups said hundreds of people were shot dead in the streets. On Oct. 4, in his first comments addressing the protests, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali 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.

7. What were previous protests about?

The biggest domestic challenge to the government came in 2009 from the so-called Green Movement, sparked by allegations of fraud in the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Demonstrations focused largely on political issues and attracted millions of middle-class Iranians in Tehran. The state reacted swiftly to quash dissent, with dozens killed, hundreds arrested and web access significantly impeded. But protests continue to flare and be put down:

• IN MAY 2022, demonstrations erupted in southwest Iran after the collapse of a 10-story building, poorly constructed and commissioned by a government official, killed at least 40 people.

• IN JANUARY 2020, Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down a passenger jet, killing the 176 people on board, sparking protests. Public anger was fueled by the incompetence of the security establishment and efforts to hide the state’s culpability for days.

• IN NOVEMBER 2019, protests were sparked by a sharp and sudden increase in the price of gasoline ordered by the government, which subsidizes the fuel. Iranians were already being squeezed by US sanctions, imposed the year before by then-President Donald Trump. Security forces responded with deadly force.

• IN LATE 2017, Iranians took to the streets to express frustration with economic insecurity in protests that expanded to include opposition to the regime.

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

8. What’s the state of the opposition in Iran?

There is no legitimate, organized opposition inside Iran. People criticize the leadership privately, but such views are rarely reflected in the country’s tightly regulated media. The only political factions that can function 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 Khamenei, moderate or pragmatic conservatives like former President Hassan Rouhani or Ali Larijani, and reformists like former President Mohammad Khatami. The reformists believe that the political system should be open to improvement. However, their popularity and influence has declined substantially since Rouhani’s government failed to keep several promises to improve civil liberties. His administration was also widely blamed for mismanaging the economy after the US reimposed sanctions in 2018 after abandoning a 2015 agreement concerning 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 Iran’s military, which has helped fortify his position. Khamenei is the ultimate authority behind all major decisions of the state, including economic and foreign policy, and he’s also the de facto head of several large religious foundations that run some of the country’s biggest conglomerates and pension funds. It’s this consolidation of military power and economic influence that has helped the Islamic Republic, in its current manifestation, to maintain an iron grip on politics. All of Iran’s major state institutions, from the state broadcaster (which has a complete monopoly on broadcast services) to the judiciary, are managed by people close to the supreme leader or are politically aligned with him. Since last year’s election of Raisi, all levers of Iran’s state and government have been under the control of hard-liners who fiercely defend the centrality of their Islamic ideology. 

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