EXPLAINER: Woman’s death in custody sparks Iran protests

Protests have erupted across Iran in recent days after a 22-year-old woman died while being held by the morality police for violating the country’s strictly enforced Islamic dress code.

Anger has seen women remove their mandatory headscarves, or hijabs, from covering their hair after the death of Mahsa Amini, who was picked up by morality police over her allegedly loose headscarf. Videos online show women twirling them overhead, chanting. Others have burned them or cut off locks of their own hair in rage.

Amini’s death has angered many Iranians, particularly the young, who have come to see it as part of the Islamic Republic’s heavy-handed policing of dissent and the morality police’s increasingly violent treatment of young women.

At some of the demonstrations, protesters have clashed with police. Thick clouds of tear gas have been seen in the capital, Tehran.

Meanwhile, motorcycle-riding volunteers known as “Basij” in Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard have chased and beaten demonstrators — as they have in other protests in recent years over water rights, the country’s cratering economy and other reasons that have been violently suppressed.

Yet some demonstrators still chant “death to the dictator,” targeting both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s rule and Iran’s theocracy, despite the threat of arrest, imprisonment and even the possibility of a death sentence.

Here’s a look at what sparked the protests and where they might lead.


Iran’s morality police arrested Amini on Sept. 13 in Tehran, where she was visiting from her hometown in the country’s western Kurdish region. She collapsed at a police station and died three days later.

Police detained her over wearing her hijab too loosely. Iran requires women to wear the headscarf in a way that completely covers their hair when in public. Only Afghanistan under Taliban rule now actively enforces a similar law — even ultraconservative Saudi Arabia has dialed back its enforcement over recent years.

The police deny Amini was mistreated and say she died of a heart attack. President Ebrahaim Raisi, who will speak at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, has promised an investigation.

Amini’s family says she had no history of heart trouble and that they were prevented from seeing her body before she was buried. The demonstrations erupted after her funeral in the Kurdish city of Saqez on Saturday, and quickly spread to other parts of the country, including Tehran.


Iranian women have full access to education, work outside the home and hold public office. But they are required to dress modestly in public, which includes wearing the hijab as well as long, loose-fitting robes. Unmarried men and women are barred from mingling.

The rules, which date back to the days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, are enforced by the morality police. Those force, officially known as the Guidance Patrol, is stationed across public areas. It is made up of men as well as women.

Enforcement was eased under former President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who at one point accused the morality police of being overly aggressive. In 2017, the head of the force said it would no longer arrest women for violating the dress code.

But under Raisi, a hard-liner elected last year, the morality police appear to have been unleashed. The U.N. human rights office says young women have been slapped in the face, beaten with batons and shoved into police vehicles in recent months.


Iranian leaders have vowed to investigate the circumstances of Amini’s death while accusing unnamed foreign countries and exiled opposition groups of seizing on it as a pretext to foment unrest. That’s been a common pattern in any of the protests that have risen up in recent years.

Iran’s ruling clerics view the United States as a threat to the Islamic Republic and believe the adoption of Western customs undermines society. Khamenei himself has seized on so-called “color” protests in Europe and elsewhere as foreign interventions — and not as people demonstrating for more rights.

Tensions have been especially high since former President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and imposed crippling sanctions. The Biden administration has been working with European allies for the last two years to revive the accord, but negotiations appear deadlocked as nonproliferation experts warn Iran has enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb if it chose to build one. The Islamic Republic insists its program is peaceful.

The governor of Tehran said Wednesday that authorities arrested three foreign nationals at protests in the capital, without elaborating. Iranian security forces have arrested at least 25 people, and the governor of the Kurdistan province says three people have been killed by armed groups in unrest linked to the protests, without elaborating.

Activists and human rights groups have blamed Iranian security forces for killing protesters in other demonstrations, like those over gasoline prices in 2019.


Iran’s ruling clerics have weathered several waves of protests going back decades, eventually quashing them with brute force.

The most serious challenge to the clerics’ rule was the Green Movement that emerged after the country’s disputed presidential election in 2009 and called for far-reaching reforms; millions of Iranians took to the streets.

Authorities responded with a brutal crackdown, with the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia opening fire on protesters and launching waves of arrests. Opposition leaders were placed under house arrest.

Among those killed was Neda Agha Soltan, a 27-year-old woman who became an icon of the protest movement after she was shot and bled to death in a video seen by millions on social media.


Follow Joseph Krauss on Twitter at www.twitter.com/josephkrauss.

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