Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: Why are women protesting in Iran?

Iran has exploded in protests in the aftermath of the death of a 22-year-old woman who was detained by security forces. Thousands have descended on the streets to decry Iran’s heavy-handed and draconian security services. As the protests spark international interest and condemnation around the world, Mint explains the unfolding crisis in Iran.

What was the trigger for the protests?

Iran’s morality police detained Mahsa Amini in Tehran on September 13. Amini was arrested for wearing a loose headscarf in contravention of Iran’s strict rules for women’s clothing. Security forces claim that Amini suffered a heart attack in custody, slipped into a coma and passed away two days later. Witnesses and observers have a different story. They claim that Amini was severely beaten and succumbed to her injuries. Despite President Ebrahim Raisi’s promise of an investigation, protests began in Amini’s home province and spread across the country. Outrage at national security services also spilled into social media. Images of women protestors cutting their hair in protest have captured global headlines. Protests have been ongoing for the last 10 days.

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Iran’s stance on women's attire

Amini’s death is seen as the latest episode in the Iranian government’s highly controversial policing of women’s attire and behaviour. While Iran’s women may work and attend higher education institutions, they are required to wear headscarves in public and are restricted from wearing tight-fitting clothes among other items. Violators face the possibility of fines and arrest. While enforcement was seen to have eased under the presidency of the moderate Hassan Rouhani, Iran is now led by conservative hardliner Raisi. Under his rule, aggressive, and sometimes violent, enforcement of these laws has become more common. Prominent clerics have also voiced their support for cracking down on ‘improperly’ dressed women.

What is the international reaction?

The Iranian government's actions have received condemnation from most quarters. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Amini’s death and called for the Iranian government to “end its systematic persecution of women". The European Union’s foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell echoed calls by prominent officials like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for an independent investigation into the Amini incident. Similarly, Italy’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement stating that “violence against innocent people, especially women and girls, can never be tolerated."

Protests against the Iranian government have erupted in countries like the United States, Turkey, Brazil, Germany and Chile.

How has the Iranian government reacted?

Iranian officialdom has hit back at criticism of its actions over the course of the last weeks. Focusing on American condemnation of Amini’s death, President Raisi accused Washington of double standards, given instances of deaths in police custody. Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian accused the US of shedding “crocodile tears". Officials are blaming Western countries, and the United States in particular, for stirring up protests.

Tehran has also decided to crack down heavily on protests. Internet services and social media have been suspended in many parts and scores of protesters have reportedly been killed. The government has also been accused of organising counter-protests where demonstrators have called for the execution of anti-government protesters.

How serious is the threat to the government?

Most of Iran’s provinces, including the capital city of Tehran, have sent protestors to the streets. Some have even called for the replacement of Iran’s Islamist regime. While these are the largest protests seen in the country since 2019, it is unlikely to topple the regime in Tehran. Iran’s security services, including the feared Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are seen as too powerful and loyal to the existing dispensation. While the protests may not overwhelm the regime, it may be enough to force a rethink of the government’s efforts to strongly enforce strict social codes on an unwilling citizenry through force.

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