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Wave of protests in Iran reflects seething anger over how its regime treats women

The protests come as Iran’s hard-line president visits New York to speak at the United Nations General Assembly.

She traveled to Tehran to visit relatives, a dark-haired 22-year-old woman from Iran’s Kurdistan region. But outside a subway station, the “morality police” arrested Mahsa Amini for allegedly failing to fully cover her hair, and pulled her into a police van.

Three days later, she was dead. 

Amini’s death in the capital has ignited a wave of protests across the country, exposing a raw anger among Iranian women about their treatment by the regime and an unprecedented willingness to defy the government.

"Many people are pointing out that this could be my daughter, my sister, my wife," said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. "This has shaken people, that every time a woman leaves home, she might not come back.”

As Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi met world leaders in New York for the United Nations General Assembly this week, extraordinary scenes have unfolded in his country, with women removing their headscarves and even burning them in front of cheering crowds, according to videos posted online.

The combination of viral videos and pent-up anger represent a potential “George Floyd” moment for Iran, Ghaemi said, with the regime now “forced into a corner given how innocent this woman was and there was no grounds for having treated her so violently.”

Iran’s U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.

Protesters in Tehran throw stones at police during demonstrations Tuesday over the death of a young woman who had been detained for violating the country's conservative dress code.
Protesters in Tehran throw stones at police during demonstrations Tuesday over the death of a young woman who had been detained for violating the country's conservative dress code.AP

Raisi has ordered an investigation into Amini’s death and expressed condolences to her father in a phone call, according to Iranian state media.

“I learned about this incident during my trip to Uzbekistan, and I immediately ordered my colleagues to investigate the matter specially," Raisi said on the call, according to his official website. "I assure you that I will demand this issue from the responsible institutions so that its dimensions are clarified."

The president emphasized that he considers all Iranian girls as his own children. "Your daughter is like my own daughter, and I feel that this incident happened to one of my loved ones. Please accept my condolences," he added.

Eyewitnesses — who were also in the van — told Amini’s father that she was beaten up in the police vehicle on the way to the detention center, human rights groups say. Iranian authorities, however, said she died from a heart attack and called the incident “unfortunate.”

“They said Mahsa had heart disease and epilepsy but as the father who raised her for 22 years, I say loudly that Mahsa did not have any illness. She was in perfect health,” Amini’s father told an Iranian news outlet. 

Women’s rights advocates have battled the theocracy from its earliest days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, protesting the mandatory veil or hijab, along with an array of laws that critics and U.N. rights monitors say render women second-class citizens. 

But human rights groups say the women’s movement has gained new strength from social media in recent years and a younger generation more willing to confront the regime.

Since 2017, Iranian women increasingly have taken their opposition to the hijab law online, posting videos of themselves removing the headscarf accompanied by declarations that the government has no right to tell a woman how to dress.  

Since Raisi was elected in June, the government has deployed more morality police units, who patrol the streets to ensure women adhere to the regime’s strict female dress code, said Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher based in London. 

"One very distressing trend in recent months has been the persecution of females who defy compulsory veiling laws. The level of violence that women are facing in the street is really horrific," she said.

"And because there is now more vocal opposition, and campaigning against compulsory veiling laws in Iran, the Iranian authorities are also escalating their attacks on women in the streets," Bahreini said.

But phone cameras and hashtags have become a weapon for activists to push back, mobilize civil disobedience and expose what they allege is a surge in police repression against women. 

The digital campaign has been cheered along by Masih Alinejad, an Iranian women rights activist who immigrated to the United States and has become a thorn in the side of the regime.

She invites Iranian women to post their protest videos on social media under her #WhiteWednesdays hashtag campaign. As a result, she has amassed millions of followers online and the FBI alleges she was the target of a recent kidnapping plot by the regime.

For the Iranian government, "the compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth. It is like the main pillar of the Islamic Republic," Alinejad told NBC News.

"When mullahs took power in Iran, what was the first thing they did? They forced women to wear the hijab. Why? Because they use our bodies, like a political platform. So they write their own ideology on our bodies."

The regime likely fears that giving ground on the mandatory hijab rule could open the door to the whole theocratic system unraveling, said Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher at Article 19, a nongovernmental organization that promotes freedom of expression.

"They do not want to concede on this one point in fear that they would have to concede on a lot of other restrictions that help keep the regime in place," she said. 

On July 12, when the Iranian government organized an annual “chastity” day to promote the mandatory hijab law, opponents organized counterprotests, posting videos of themselves removing their headscarves in public. Some of the protesters were identified and arrested, but a subsequent online protest on social media under the #No2Hijab hashtag attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters.

"The consequence of this campaign in Iran was to enrage government authorities, clergy and imams,” said Atena Daemi, an Iranian human rights activist who was imprisoned for seven years for protesting the death penalty and undertook three hunger strikes. 

Government officials and clerics called for harsher penalties against women protesting the law, she said.

"Women, on the other hand, grew more motivated to continue their fight against the mandatory hijab because with each new action, they discover they are so many, they find each other, and unify and organize for the next movement,” Daemi added.

Human rights experts and activists say Iran has never wavered from its hard-line restrictions on women since the revolution, even when more pragmatic reformists have been in power. 

According to Iran’s interpretation of Sharia law, women cannot travel abroad without the permission of a father or husband, are banned from singing or riding bicycles, are denied custody of their children if they remarry, can seek a divorce only under limited circumstances, can be legally married at age 13 and even younger if a court approves and can only inherit an eighth of their husband’s estate. Iran ranked 143 out of 146 countries surveyed in a recent World Economic Forum report on gender pay gaps around the world.

Image: Tehran protests
A police motorcycle burns Monday in Tehran during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini. AP

When faced with major street protests in the past, the Iranian government has responded with overwhelming force, including opening fire on unarmed protesters, according to human rights groups and Western governments. At least four people have been killed so far by police in this week’s protests, according to Iranian-focused human rights organizations.

NBC News has not verified the claims.

State media alleged that foreign agents and seditionist elements were behind the street protests.

It’s unclear if the protests will snowball further, or if the authorities will find a way to stifle the momentum of public anger. 

Whatever the outcome of the current protests, Amini’s death has meant the regime is “definitely losing the battle for legitimacy,” Alimardani said.

Every prison sentence and arrest meted out by the regime has only radicalized Iranian women and served as a catalyst for more protests, Alinejad and other activists said.

“We have so many Rosa Parks in Iran. To me, I don’t see Iranian women like victims. They are like warriors,” Alinejad said, referring to the U.S. civil rights pioneer. 

Daemi, one of the most prominent women’s rights advocates in Iran, said she has no plans to abandon her struggle despite the threat it poses to her health and her family.

“I am confident that humanity will win,” she said. “One day, the sun will break through the gloom.”