Anger and outrage had been growing for months in Iran over a string of acid attacks targeting women. This week, those emotions erupted into the streets, with about 2,000 people condemning the attacks in front of the city of Isfahan's judiciary building on Wednesday and dozens of protesters assembling in front of Tehran's parliament.
There have been at least eight acid attacks on women in Isfahan in recent months, including one that killed a victim. According to local police reports, the attacks were all conducted by assailants on motorbikes who threw acid onto women sitting inside cars -- and they came as parliamentarians considered a law protecting people who correct others they judge to be behaving or dressing in ways that violate Iran's strict social laws. That law was passed on Sunday.
But on Wednesday, the protests appeared to get a high-profile boost from none other than Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who criticized the new law.
“It is upon all Muslims to exhort love, respect for others and human dignity," Rouhani reportedly said Wednesday, a comment that was widely perceived as being in support of the protesters.
Although Rouhani did not mention the protests or the acid attacks, the statement was remarkable, and it could be the latest public acknowledgement of an internal fight between Rouhani's government and other, more conservative Iranian institutions. Rouhani has repeatedly clashed with religious hardliners in recent months, and he called them out again on Wednesday. "The sacred call to virtue is not the right of a select group of people, a handful taking the moral high ground and acting as guardians," he said.
The passage of the new law, pursued by religious hardliners, represented a setback for Rouhani's government. Although the details of the law are unclear, it is expected to empower citizens and government officials to correct Iranians who fail to follow rules defined by the country's religious leaders. Given that some of those strict Iranian norms seem to have motivated the acid attacks, the law has drawn criticism from more liberal voices. They fear that the law could legitimize violence against women for minor rule violations like wearing inappropriate clothes.
Rouhani chose particularly harsh words to condemn the passage of the law: "May such a day never come that some lead our society down the path to insecurity, sow discord and cause divisions, all under the flag of Islam," he said during a trip to the city of Zanjan, located about 370 miles away from Isfahan, where like-minded protesters took to the streets the same day.
While Rouhani's comments were quickly picked up by wire services, social media users started to share footage of the protests in Isfahan.
Pictures posted on Facebook showed a woman wearing a helmet, either as a sign of protest or out of fear that similar acid attacks could target the crowd.
Acid attacks have been relatively rare in Iran, making the recent cases all the more shocking. Photos that were recently circulated on social media showed several Iranian women whose faces and eyes were brutally disfigured. Those images appear to have propelled the protests on Wednesday.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women in Iran have been required to wear a Muslim head covering called a hijab. In 2012, the Iranian regime took a particularly tough stance on women challenging the law. Concerts were canceled and shops closed as soon as women wearing "improper clothing'' were detected by the country's morality police. According to the law, women who refuse to follow the rules can be punished with imprisonment or lashing.
Many have seen the crackdown in recent years as an effort to distract from Iran's internal economic woes by blaming a liberalizing Western influence. In 2012, Tehran's police chief said that wearing an improper hijab was "part of the enemy's soft war against us." Back then, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was considered more conservative than Rouhani, was still in power. However, like Rouhani, Ahmadinejad clashed with religious hardliners over the issue, demanding women have the freedom to choose their clothing.
Some Iranian women have argued that they are proud of wearing their hijabs, while others have risked punishment for publicly refusing to wear them.
With acid attacks on the rise, resistance to the rule has now become even more dangerous. Soheila Jorkesh, one acid attack victim, told the official news agency IRNA: "I was a student, I am educated, I was behind the wheel of my car and then the attacker took my life away from me."