Demonstrations which began on Saturday 17 September in Iran’s Kurdistan region over the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini (22), three days after her arrest and detention by the country’s ‘morality police’ for violating the dress code for women, this week spread to the capital Tehran and several university campuses across the country.
Amini was buried on Saturday in her home city of Saqez in Kurdistan where police fired tear gas to quell protests that erupted after her funeral. Some 500 people were involved and several protesters were arrested. Reports from Iran indicated a complete internet shutdown in Kurdistan province.
The semi-official Fars news agency said students in many Tehran universities started to gather in protest on Monday 19 September, demanding an investigation into Amini’s death and the dismantling of the morality police, who were still holding her when she died in a Tehran hospital on 16 September.
A statement on 20 September from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva said: “There are reports Amini was beaten on the head with a baton, and her head was banged against the vehicle by the so-called morality police.”
The hijab has been compulsory for women in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The morality police are charged with enforcing the dress code and other restrictions.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights statement: “In recent months, the morality police have expanded street patrols, subjecting women perceived to be wearing [a] ‘loose hijab’ to verbal and physical harassment and arrest. The UN Human Rights Office has received numerous, and verified, videos of violent treatment of women, including slapping women across the face, beating them with batons and throwing them into police vans.”
Students of at least seven universities in Tehran and the University of Isfahan (roughly 400 km south of Tehran) marched on Monday shouting slogans against the regime. Students at the University of Tehran and Shahid Beheshti University, also in Tehran, demanded “clarification” on how Amini died, according to Iran’s Fars and Tasnim news agencies.
“Several hundred people chanted slogans against the authorities, some of them took off their hijab,” Fars said, adding that “police arrested several people and dispersed the crowd using batons and tear gas”. Videos show how protesting women removed their headscarves and waved them above their heads.
In the capital on Monday, protests outside university campuses started from a street in central Tehran named Hijab Street and were organised by women’s rights activists. Tehran University had by that time pre-emptively informed students by text message that all classes would be shifted online for the next three weeks, but that did not prevent campus demonstrations continuing on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Students of Tehran’s Amirkabir University of Technology clashed with internal security forces, known as Basij, pushing back when the security forces tried to disperse the students, according to social media and video reports from campuses monitored in a report by the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a Paris-based coalition of Iranian dissident groups.
By Wednesday, protests had spread to at least 15 cities in Iran. And by Thursday protests had broken out in at least 86 cities in 28 of Iran’s 31 provinces. Some turned violent, with hundreds of arrests, including many women. Women’s units of the state security force were deployed for the first time to rein in the unrest, the state-run Mehr News Agency reported.
Students on university campuses were particularly active. Protests expanded to Tabriz, capital of East Azerbaijan Province, where students at the University of Tabriz were protesting, Yazd University in central Iran and Kharazmi University in Karaj.
Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told media that Iranian security forces had reportedly responded to the protests in cities, including Tehran, Isfahan, Karaj, Mashhad, Rasht, Saqqes (Saqez) and Sanandaj, “with live ammunition” and at least two people had reportedly been killed and several injured.
The NCRI Women’s Committee report also highlighted video reports of students of Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran holding a protest gathering on their campus to mourn Amini and condemning the compulsory hijab laws.
According to the NCRI Women’s Committee website, students at the Tehran Teachers’ Training University shouted: “Freedom is our right; we are powerful when we are together!” Melli University students shouted: “So many years of injustice, down with tyranny!” Tehran University School of Art students yelled: “From Kurdistan to Tehran, stop the oppression of women!”
Other universities holding protests on Tuesday included Tehran’s University of Science and Culture, where female students removed their hijabs and chanted: “We will kill whoever killed our sister”, and at Iran University of Science and Technology – where protests had already broken out in April this year over tightened restrictions to force students to comply with the dress code.
Dress rules on campuses were monitored more closely when universities reopened after COVID-19 related closures. Islamic student associations at the University of Tehran and Tehran University of Medical Sciences wrote to their university rectors in April criticising the harsher new measures.
Iranian authorities have stated that Amini, who was in a coma in hospital for three days after her arrest, died of natural causes on 16 September.
State television on Friday broadcast a short surveillance video that showed a woman identified as Amini collapsing in a police station after an argument with a policewoman.
Tehran police chief General Hossein Rahimi said on Monday that Amini, who was visiting Tehran along with her brother, had violated the dress code, and that his colleagues had asked her relatives to bring her “decent clothes”. Rahimi was quoted by Fars news agency as saying that Amini’s death was an “unfortunate incident that we hope will not be repeated”.