The protests in Iran: “They said that if we complain, they will rape us”

Against the background of a very delicate international situation due to the war in Ukraine, the negotiations to resume the nuclear deal and the pressure of international economic sanctions, the conservative theocratic regime in Iran must face a new challenge - its people.

For more than a week, the country has been gripped by mass protests. The Caspian coastal provinces and western Iran are among the most restive areas, with demonstrations in more than 50 cities, including the capital Tehran.

Protests are also taking place in several European countries, as well as the USA. “They knocked me to the ground and a policeman stepped on my back with his boot, then kicked me in the stomach, tied my hands, and pushed me into a van,” Mariam, 51, told the BBC.

She was arrested last week in Tehran during an anti-government protest.

“I heard one of their officers ordering his soldiers to be ruthless. The female officers are just as horrible. One of them slapped me and called me an Israeli spy and a prostitute,” Mariam says.

Another woman arrested in one of Iran’s southern cities says that female security officers made threats of sexual violence.

“The policeman who registered us in the detention center asked me for my name and called me a prostitute,” Fereshte claimed. “When I complained, she said that if I continued, she would ask one of her colleagues to have fun with me,” she added.

The reason for the wave of discontent is the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who came to the capital Tehran from the city of Sages in the Kurdish north to visit her relatives. She was arrested by the Metropolitan Moral Police for wearing “inappropriate clothing”, and while in custody fell into a coma and later expired in hospital.

The official opinion of the authorities is that Amini died of a heart attack. However, according to her family, she was in perfect health, and witnesses claimed that she was hit on the head with a bat multiple times during the detention.

According to state media, more than 40 people were killed during the unrest, including by law enforcement. At the same time, human rights organizations report a significantly higher death toll.

Among them is 20-year-old influencer Hadis Najafi, who was beaten and shot six times during a protest in the northern city of Karaj on Sunday.

The total number of arrests was not shared by the authorities. However, Mazandaran province’s chief prosecutor reported that at least 450 protesters were detained in the regional capital, Sari.

The incident sparked massive public anger and the largest protests in the Islamic Republic since 2019. Then they erupted due to rising fuel prices and became the bloodiest in Iran’s history.

A decade before them was the previous wave of mass protests in the 2009 election over suspicions that the results had been rigged in favor of the hardline and conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Today, the emphasis is not political or economic but is related to the attitude toward human freedoms.

Amini met her death because she was not dressed properly according to the understanding of the religious authorities. The very introduction of compulsory hijab was one of the first decrees of Ayatollah Khomeini, after the revolution of 1979.

In the Islamic tradition, there are described rules for how women and men should dress modestly, but the requirements for ladies are significantly more. This includes the use of the so-called hijab, which is a broad term for covering the head and face with a veil, scarf, or some other covering.

For Iran, the practice is mandatory for all women, with the regime using parts of the Koran and the hadith (traditions about the Prophet Muhammad) to justify enforcing the policy. The monitoring of its implementation is carried out by special police units, officially called “guiding patrols”.

They have wide-ranging powers to impose penalties that range from reprimands and reprimands to fines, impounding a car, arrest, or even caning.

Despite the threats, there have been various protest campaigns over the years. One of the most famous is from 2014, when the “My Stealthy Freedom” movement emerged, encouraging women to post pictures of themselves without the hijab. In 2017, the initiative “White Wednesdays” appeared, which encourages the removal of headscarves on Wednesdays or the wearing of white ones as a sign of protest.

However, the most popular practice remains for the hijab to be demonstratively placed casually around the head or simply falling loosely over the shoulders. Social networks also represent a space for protest, where the moral police still had no power until now.

Now the situation is visibly escalating.

A month ago, the government adopted new and stricter instructions on wearing the hijab and introduced a law requiring the use of video surveillance and facial recognition systems in public transport to monitor women.

The new legislation also includes measures to deny access to social services, dismissal from government posts, and other punishments for publishing photos without a hijab on the Internet. The wearing of an all-black umbrella is increasingly encouraged – a type of garment that covers the entire body and leaves only the face exposed.

With the imposition of the new measures and the death of Masha Amini, for many people, the glass broke and their quiet protest turned into an open rebellion with calls for “Death to the dictator”.

As usual, the regime responded in the only possible way it was capable of – with force.

Units of the Basij paramilitary volunteer militia (one of the structures of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard) were mobilized, which has auxiliary functions in terms of security and the provision of social services, but when necessary is used to mobilize the electorate before elections and suppress anti-government protests. Exactly as is the case now.

The problem is that at the moment the situation is such that it is difficult to find a scapegoat. The government, as usual, makes accusations of foreign interference, but domestically there are no more moderate or more liberal-minded representatives in the government.

At the head of the country stands a president, considered the successor and protégé of the current Ayatollah Khamenei, and in the parliament, there are no reformist factions, as there were until now. This is because, in the last parliamentary and presidential elections, everything possible was done to prevent moderate candidates from participating.

Now they cannot be used as a scapegoat and a buffer between protest discontent and the regime.

To avoid further escalations, the authorities in Tehran will have to take a step back on the new controversial legislation.

Otherwise, piles of burnt hijabs on the streets could be the least of their problems.

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