Protests Erupt After Death in Detention

In mid-September 2022, protests broke out across Iran after the death in detention of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman picked up for improper hijab, or head covering, hiding her hair. She collapsed in a “reeducation” center. During the first week, spontaneous demonstrations erupted in more than 50 cities. At least nine were killed and many were injured during violent crackdowns by Iranian security forces, who used tear gas and live ammunition. 

Police and Government Response

Police initially claimed that Amini had suffered a heart attack and that there was “no physical encounter” between her and officers. But Amini’s father and uncle told local media that she had been healthy. “The cause of the accident is clear as day,” Amini’s uncle said. “What happens when they grab girls and stick them in the car with such ferocity and terror? Do they have the right? They know nothing about Islam, nor humanity.”

In a second statement, the police denied that Amini had been beaten and said that she fainted after entering the police station. State media broadcast what appeared to be edited video footage of Amini entering the police station and later collapsing in a room where at least a dozen other women were being held. The last part of the video showed her being wheeled out to an ambulance.

President Ebrahim Raisi directed the Ministry of Interior and Tehran’s prosecutor to launch investigations. On September 18, he offered condolences to Amini’s family during a phone call. “Your daughter is like my own daughter, and I feel that this incident happened to one of my loved ones,” he said. An aide from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office visited the family. The head of Tehran’s morality police, Colonel Ahmad Mirzaei, was suspended pending further investigation, according to multiple media outlets. The police later denied that report.

Protests and Public Reaction

The outcry over Amini’s death—at demonstrations, in the press, and on social media—reflected growing opposition to the morality police as well as to the dress code. 

Protests began within hours of Amini’s death on September 16. Demonstrators gathered outside of Kasra Hospital, where she had died. In one video, security forces appeared to attack protesters. At least two activists were reportedly detained. NetBlocks, a cyber monitoring firm, reported a disruption in internet service in Tehran as the news went viral. Authorities have previously slowed internet speeds to hinder the spread of information.    

Amini was buried in her hometown of Saqez, in the northwestern province of Kurdistan on September 17. Funeral attendees, some of whom traveled from neighboring cities, shouted “Death to the dictator,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been in power since 1989. Some women removed their headscarves in defiance of the compulsory dress code. Demonstrators marched to the office of Saqez’s governor. Police reportedly fired teargas and pellet guns to disperse the crowd. 

Demonstrations then spread to Sanandaj, Kurdistan’s provincial capital. “Saqez is not alone; Sanandaj supports Saqez,” people chanted. Videos posted on social media showed clashes between riot police and youth, who burned tires and threw rocks. Police used tear gas, and gunfire could be heard. Demonstrators in Sanandaj clashed with police again on September 18. Some people chanted “Death to Khamenei” in a video. Internet service for mobile phones was reportedly cut.

On September 18, hundreds of people gathered at Tehran University.  “Woman, Life, Freedom!” students chanted as they marched through campus. On September 19, students at three campuses in the capital – Kabir University, Shahid Beheshti University and Tehran University – held rallies.

Amini’s death was widely condemned by Iranians on social media. By September 19, the Persian hashtag #MahsaAmini had been mentioned nearly two million times on Twitter, becoming one of the most used Persian hashtags ever. To protest the dress code, women uploaded videos of themselves cutting off their hair. Men shaved their beards in solidarity. Several celebrities, including soccer players and actors, mourned Amini’s death. In an Instagram post, Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi wrote that he was disgusted with himself. “We have put ourselves to sleep against this endless cruelty. We are partners in this crime.”

Religious leaders and former politicians spoke out as well. Grand Ayatollah Assadollah Bayat Zanjani, a pro-reform cleric, said that the incident was “illegitimate” and “illegal.” Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said that the police must be held accountable. Former President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), a reformist, called that the conduct of the morality police a “disaster.” And former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2013-2021) wrote that he was “ashamed and sorry.” 

Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iran’s most prominent human rights lawyer, said that Amini’s death should be “investigated as a deliberate murder” under Article 290 of the Islamic penal code. 

 

Media Reaction

On September 18, most reformist and centrist newspapers ran large photos of Amini or her grave on front pages. Mardom Salari, a reformist newspaper, urged the government to “Dismantle the Morality Police.” In a banner headline, Afatb-e Yazd, a reformist daily, exclaimed “Iran in Shock.” Centrist Ebtekar headlined “Tragic Death of Mahsa Amini.”

Most reformist newspapers devoted their front pages to coverage of Amini's death

 

In stark contrast, most conservative newspapers downplayed the story and led with a speech by Supreme Leader Khamenei about a religious holiday. Some defended the morality police and charged that the accounts of abuse were spurious. Hardline Kayhan reported, “Footage showing moments when Mahsa Amini loses consciousness exposes liars.” Vatan-e Emrooz, another hardline daily, noted the “tragedy” in small print with no photo on its front page.

 

Dress Code Enforcement and Opposition

After the 1979 revolution, the new theocracy required females to cover their hair with a hijab and dress modestly from the age of puberty. Violators could face prison sentences, fines or lashes. But enforcement has varied widely since then.

In practice, many women, especially in cities, started wearing scarves that barely covered their hair. The all-enveloping black chador was not as common as it was in the early days of the revolution. Iranians increasingly became critical of the dress code. In 2006, 55 percent of respondents told pollsters that the state should “confront” women who disobey the hijab ruleBy 2014, only 40 percent said that the state should confront violators, according to a study by the Iranian Students Polling Agency. So many women started wearing tight leggings that lawmakers summoned the interior minister in June 2014 to question the lax enforcement of the dress code. 

Activists faced harassment and legal consequences for challenging the law. In 2014, exiled journalist and activist Masih Alinejad started the My Stealthy Freedom campaign. Hundreds of women flaunted the dress code, posting pictures of themselves on social media without a veil. In 2017, Alinejad launched the #WhiteWednesdays social media campaign. Women removed their headscarves in public and waved them on a stick, sometimes on street corners or in public squares, by themselves or in groups. Many were arrested and charged with crimes, such as collusion against national security, propaganda against the state, and encouraging moral corruption and prostitution.

President Raisi, a hardliner elected in 2021, has pushed for stringent enforcement of the Islamic dress code imposed after the 1979 revolution. On July 5, 2022, he urged authorities to enforce a longstanding resolution on “chastity and hijab.” Opposition to the dress code was “an organized promotion of corruption in Islamic society,” Raisi said.

Raisi
President Ebrahim Raisi

The government declared July 12, 2022 to be a new national “Hijab and Chastity Day.” In response, Iranian activists called for a “No to Hijab Day.” Many women posted videos or photos of themselves without head coverings or burning scarves as part of the “No2Hijabcampaign. Several were reportedly detained for protesting or their social-media posts.  

On Aug. 15, 2022, Raisi signed decreed new restrictions on women’s dress, including on heavy makeup. Authorities plan to use technology on public transportation to identify women on public transportation.

For years, Raisi has also advocated strict segregation of the sexes. “Preventing the mixing of men and women in the office environment is in order for men and women to be able to provide better services to the people, and this is a good move to create a suitable working environment and effort for women,” he said in 2014.

 

Kurdistan Hotbed

Kurdistan is one of the more restive of Iran’s 31 provinces. Ethnic Kurds, a majority in the province but a minority in Iran, have long alleged neglect and discrimination by the Persian-dominated central government.

Iran and its neighbors have long perceived the Kurds as a threat due to their numbers, geographic distribution and resistance to central authority. At least 25 million Kurds are spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are the largest minority in the world without a state.

In Iran, Kurdish separatist groups have sought independence since the early 1900s, both during the monarchy and since the 1979 revolution. Stability in Kurdistan is vital to security on the border with Iraq and maintaining territorial integrity. 

 

International Reaction

Human rights groups decried Amini’s treatment as emblematic of Iran’s repressive policies. “Mahsa Amini is one among countless victims of the Islamic Republic’s war on women,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “The government is responsible for her death and decades of women being harassed, detained and otherwise harmed under the guise of this discriminatory, inhuman law.”

The United Nations called for a prompt and impartial investigation into allegations of torture. “The authorities must stop targeting, harassing, and detaining women who do not abide by the hijab rules,” Acting U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif said.

Amnesty International called for a criminal investigation. In a statement, it said that the morality police “arbitrarily arrested” Amini three days before her death “while enforcing the country’s abusive, degrading and discriminatory forced veiling laws. “All agents and officials responsible must face justice.”

U.S. officials also criticized Iran. In a tweet, Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, called Amini’s death “appalling.” Iran “must end its violence against women for exercising their fundamental rights.” Those responsible “should be held accountable.” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that Amini’s death was “unforgivable.” The United States “will continue to hold Iranian officials accountable for such human right abuses,” he tweeted. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Iran to allow peaceful protests.