Updated September 22, 2022 at 3:46 p.m. EDT|Published September 21, 2022 at 12:13 p.m. EDT
The protests started small, outside the Tehran hospital where a 22-year old Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini died last week after being detained by the “morality police” for an untold violation of the country’s harsh strictures on women’s dress. By Tuesday, the protests were racing across the country, in a burst of grief, anger and defiance. Many were led by women, who burned their headscarves, cut their hair and chanted, “Death to the dictator.”
The ferocity of the protests is fueled by outrage over many things at once: the allegations that Amini was beaten in custody before she collapsed and fell into a coma; the priorities of Iran’s government, led by ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi, who has strictly enforced dress codes and empowered the hated morality police at a time of widespread economic suffering; and the anguish of Amini’s family, ethnic Kurds from a rural area of Iran, whose expressions of pain and shock have resonated across the country.
Amini did not have any health problems that would explain her death, said her family, who could not fathom how she attracted the interest of the police. “Even a 60-year-old woman wasn’t covered up as much as Mahsa,” said her father, Amjad Amini, in an interview with an Iranian news outlet.
Rights groups say at least seven people have been killed in the demonstrations, the largest in Iran since protests erupted in 2019 over the cutting of fuel subsidies. In those protests, like the ones now shaking the country, the authorities responded by cutting internet service and resorting in some cases to the use of deadly force, including live ammunition.
The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on senior officials from Iran’s intelligence and law enforcement branches, condemning what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Amini’s “tragic and brutal death.”
Protesters are becoming bolder and are directing their rage at the country’s security forces. In the northern city of Amol, demonstrators can be seen in videos giving chase to a retreating police vehicle. To the west, in Nowshahr, protesters flip a police truck as onlookers cheer them on. The “morality police,” or “guidance patrols,” who roam the streets in distinctive green-striped vans, have been around for years, but have become more aggressive under Raisi. Even before Amini’s death, videos documenting their brutality had provoked widespread anger, including one from August that appeared to show a detained woman being thrown from a speeding van.
The Kurdish region
Videos show protesters, some speaking Kurdish, taking to the streets in Kamyaran and Abdanan, near Iran’s border with Iraq. Many of the protests have been concentrated in the west, the poor, predominantly Kurdish region Amini’s family hails from. The Kurds — who speak their own language, have a distinct cultural identity and are mostly Sunni Muslims in a majority-Shiite country — have complained for decades of neglect by the central government.
The conservative areas
Large demonstrations also erupted in two Iranian cities that are considered holy by Shiite Muslims and draw tens of millions of pilgrims every year. “Cannons, tanks and rockets, the clerics have to get lost,” protesters chanted in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city and the site of the revered Imam Reza shrine. They gathered on Ahmadabad Street, a major thoroughfare, where a fire could be seen in the distance. In a video from Qom, a center of religious scholarship, protesters march through the street, whistling, and some throw rocks. “Hit him,” someone shouts, as the crowd surges forward.
Protests quickly reached the capital, with one video showing demonstrators gathering in Vali-e Asr, a major square in downtown Tehran. “Dishonorable, dishonorable,” people yell, as they are sprayed with water cannons mounted on an armored police vehicle. Another video from central Tehran shows students at the Amirkabir University of Technology chanting, “Death to the dictator” — a reference to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Anger has been building at universities in recent months over the government’s increasingly strict enforcement of hijab rules. Students who protest risk being arrested or placed on a blacklist that threatens their academic advancement.
The north and south
Protests have spread well beyond the capital and Iran’s traditionally restive areas. In a video from Kerman, in southeastern Iran, a young woman sitting on a utility box, surrounded by a cheering crowd, is seen removing her headscarf and cutting off her own hair. “An Iranian will die but will not accept oppression,” the crowd chants. In Sari, near the Caspian Sea, a woman dances around a small bonfire, then throws her headscarf into the flames.
Another video from Rasht, also on the Caspian, shows a crowd of young men crowded around a police officer, who is wielding what appears to be a kind of stun gun. Within seconds, the crowd attacks, pushing the officer to the ground and beating him. As shots ring out, the demonstrators flee.