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Why death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini sparked protests in Iran

Videos during Amini's funeral in Iran showed women protesting with their headscarves in their hands and shouting anti-government slogans.

man and woman reading newspaper in IranA man views a newspaper with a cover picture of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police" in Tehran, Iran September 18, 2022. (Photo by Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters)

The death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, after being detained by Iran’s morality police, has sparked widespread protests in the country. The circumstances of Amini’s death are contested with authorities saying she had a heart attack, her family has alleged that she was beaten up during her detention.

Amini was detained for not wearing her hijab properly, which is a punishable offence in Iran. Viral videos of a protest during Amini’s funeral in her hometown, Saqez, showed women protesting with their headscarves in their hands and shouting anti-government slogans.

Detention and death

Amini, who was also known as Jina as per a report in The New York Times, was travelling to Iran’s capital Tehran from Saqez in the western province of Kurdistan. She was visiting the capital city with her brother to meet relatives when she was detained for allegedly flouting the dress code for women in the country.

Iran’s morality police have its units in place to implement dress-code-related laws in the country.

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While Amini was not particularly given any reasoning, media organisations have reported the detention was due to her clothes. However, Amini’s mother told an Iranian media organisation in an interview that her daughter’s clothes were in line with the rules.


After that, she was taken to a detention centre where her brother was present during her interrogation. Local media reports have stated that Amini’s brother heard “screaming noises” from inside, soon after which an ambulance was called.

Amini was taken to the hospital, where she slipped into a coma. Videos and photos of Amini lying unconscious on a hospital bed with tubes in her mouth, blood coming out of her ears and bruises around her eyes went viral on social media.


Iran’s security forces, meanwhile, have issued a statement saying that Amini had suddenly collapsed and suffered a heart attack while receiving “educational training” on hijab rules. However, Amini’s family has reiterated that she was perfectly healthy before her detention.

Iran’s security forces have also released a video, that has been said to have been edited, where a woman in a robe — identified as Amini by the police officers — is speaking to another woman at the detention centre when she suddenly holds her head and collapses, the video then cuts to medical staff entering the room.

Amini’s family has not yet confirmed if it is in fact her in the video.


How have the protests unfolded?

After Amini’s death, many have spoken out against detaining and harassing women for dress codes and dress laws. One major reason behind the protests has been the refusal of Iran’s security forces to take responsibility for the incident.

According to Kurdish Human Rights platform Hengaw, at least 38 people have been injured during the protests so far. The protests first emerged in Tehran outside Kasra hospital, where Amini was taken by the police after she collapsed. The protests then spread outside Tehran, to Amini’s hometown of Saqez.

While the police tried to keep the number of people at her funeral to a minimum, thousands were found to be present at the graveside. After Amini’s funeral, protestors also gathered outside Saqez Governor’s office and the protests soon turned violent, The Guardian reported.

According to Kurdish human rights groups, the police at the protest site used pepper spray and tear gas on the protestors. Even gunshots were heard in many viral videos. In viral videos, women protestors could be seen taking off their hijabs in solidarity with Amini.

The Faculty of Fine Arts at Tehran University also staged peaceful protests with over 100 students carrying posters with ‘women, life, freedom’ written on them and risked punishment. Many women also took to social media to chop off their hair to protest against the government and Amini’s death.


What is Iran’s hijab law?

After the Islamic revolution (1978-79), Iran passed a mandatory hijab law in 1981. Article 638 of the Islamic penal code states that it is a crime for women to appear in public, or on the streets, without a hijab.

The Guardian reported earlier this month that Iranian authorities were planning to use facial recognition technology in public transport to identify women who weren’t properly following hijab rules.


In July this year on the National Hijab and Chastity Day, Iran saw widespread protests where women took to social media to remove their hijabs in public. Many also posted photos and videos of themselves not wearing hijabs in public transport.

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi had also passed an order in July to enforce Iran’s hijab and chastity law with new restrictions. Along with a crackdown on ‘improper hijabs’, the government also issued an order against wearing high heels and stockings. The order also made it mandatory for women to cover their necks and shoulders.


Crackdown on Kurds

Amini was a Kurdish woman belonging to Iran’s western province of Kurdistan, which is one of the border districts of Iran.

According to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, there are 8 to 10 million Kurds present in Iran, which comes to 11 to 15% of Iran’s population. Yet, Iran has long been accused of oppressing them. Kurds have seen many protests and clashes with the security forces and the Iranian regime.

In fact, Iranian authorities have time and again arrested many Kurdish activists, writers, and students among others.

One of the major flashpoints of clashes between Iran’s government and the Kurds is the fact that many Kurdish groups have sought an independent state for long. Kurds are largely considered both progressive and rebellious, often bringing them into a confrontation with the Iranian regime.

According to an annual report by Kurdistan Human Rights Network, Iranian forces killed four Kurdish civilians in 2021 and six Kurdish prisoners in Iran’s detention facilities and prisons were tortured to death by security forces. The report adds, “In 2021, at least 421 Kurdish civilians and activists were arrested for political reasons by the security, law enforcement, and judicial institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

First published on: 19-09-2022 at 15:19 IST
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