Iran’s women protest death of Mahsa Amini who defied country’s dress code restrictions

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Dozens of Iraqi and Iranian Kurds have rallied in Iraq’s northern the city of Erbil on Saturday to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, a young 22-year old woman who died in the custody of Iranian police on 16 September 2022 after falling into a coma following her detention by morality police enforcing hijab rules on women’s dress.

Amini’s death has reignited anger over issues including restrictions on personal freedoms in Iran, the strict dress codes imposed on women and an economy reeling from sanctions.

Protests broke out in Saqez, north-western Iran, a week ago at the funeral of Amini and later spread to the provincial capital of Sanandaj to the University of Tehran and across the country. Marchers were seen confronting riot police amid the sound of sporadic gunfire.

On Saturday (24 September), protestors carrying placards with Amini’s photograph gathered outside the United Nations compound in Erbil, chanting the words “Women, Life, Freedom”. Many in the crowd were Iranian Kurds living in self-imposed exile in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq.

“They killed (Amini) because of a piece of hair coming out from her hijab. The youth is asking for freedom. They are asking for rights for all the people because everyone has the right to have dignity and freedom,” said protestor Namam Ismaili, an Iranian Kurd from Sardasht, a Kurdish town in Iran’s north west.

Amoung those at the protest was a Kurdish Iranian actress and director, Maysoon Majidi, who says the protestors are not against religion or Islam, and states that they are secularists who want a distinct separation between religion and politics.

“As Iranian Kurdish women we are oppressed by the government of the gallows. They oppressed her two times, once because she is Kurdish and a second time because she is a woman. Over the last four, five days, there are killings all over Iran. They are killing us to oppress our voices,” said the actress.

Women’s rights and media censorship in Iran put under the spotlight

Mahsa Amini’s death has sparked social outrage internationally. The Persian hashtag #MahsaAmini reaching 1.63 million mentions on Twitter by the afternoon of 18 September, with prominent figures in sports and arts having commented critically about Amini’s death through social media postings

Protests were held in the Iranian capital of Tehran on the Friday following her death amid a heavy presence of riot police. Posts on social media on the day alleged that authorities may have restricted mobile internet access in Saqez and nearby areas during the protestes

Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks reported “a significant internet outage” in Tehran on Friday (16 September), linking it to the protests.

Under Iran’s Sharia law, imposed after the 1979 revolution, women are obliged to cover their hair and wear long, loose-fitting clothes to disguise their figures. Violators face public rebuke, fines or arrest. Clerical leaders still struggle to enforce the law, as many women of various ages and backgrounds have been pushing back against these laws by wearing tight-fitting, thigh-length coats and brightly coloured head scarves pushed back to expose plenty of hair.

In the past few months, rights activists have urged women to publicly remove their veils in defiance of Iran’s Islamic dress code. Women have risked arrest in so doing, as the country’s hardline rulers crack down on what they deem “immoral behaviour”.

Videos posted on social media have shown cases of what appears to be heavy-handed action by the morality police units against women who had removed their hijabs.

Investigation into Amini’s death amid international outcry

Police have rejected suspicions expressed on social media that Amini was beaten, refuting those allegations by saying she fell ill as she waited with other detained women, and went as far as to say she had suffered a heart attack after being taken to the station to be “educated”.

“Authorities have said my daughter suffered from chronic medical conditions. I personally deny such claims as my daughter was fit and had no health problems,” Amjad Amini, Mahsa Amini’s father told Iran’s  pro-reform news website Emtedad on the Sunday following his daughter’s death.

Authorities launched probes into the death of Amini on 17 September, but state media reports that a medical examiner confirmed at the time that results of forensic tests may take three weeks.

During the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this past week, foreign ministers from around the world criticised and condemned the government of Iran for the death of Mahsa Amini as well as the country’s perceived disregard of the grievances raised by protesting women.

“They must be listened to, as these women are demanding rights that all people should have,” said Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock.

France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement in which they stated that the conduct of Iran’s morality police was “profoundly shocking”.

The United Kingdom’s foreign ministry also commented on the matter saying, “we are extremely concerned at reports of serious mistreatment’ of Amini, and many others, by Iranian security forces”

Existing tensions between Kurdish minority and Iranian establishment may escalate

Mahsa Amini was a Kurd, and the Kurdish people are a minority group in Iran and which for long has been said to marginalised by the Iranian leadership, according to human rights groups.

Between 8-10 million Kurds live in Iran. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have put down unrest in the country’s Kurdish areas for decades, and the judiciary has taken a hardline approach in sentencing many activists to long jail terms or death.

Chusti Al-Rasool, an Iraqi Kurd living In Erbil who protested at the 24 September demonstration, says

“It is not only about Kurds and religion, it is a human issue. Everyone in Iran is protesting now. Turks, Arabs, Persians, everyone is protesting in front of the oppressive Iranian forces. The Iranian government is oppressing all ethnic and religious groups. It is not about the hijab and religion.”