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Iran: Anger and protests after death of woman in custody over 'bad hijab'

Mahsa Amini, 22, allegedly died from injuries sustained after her arrest by 'morality police' for improper wearing of a headscarf
Mahsa Amini, 22, died after "suffering a heart problem", according to police (Twitter)

Campaigners and rights groups have reacted with fury following the death of a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman in Tehran after she was detained for "bad hijab".

Mahsa Amini had been visiting the capital on Tuesday when the special police unit that monitors women's clothing arrested her for alleged improper wearing of the headscarf, which is mandatory for women in Iran.

Tehran police said in a statement on Thursday that, while in custody, Amini had "suddenly suffered from a heart problem" and was "immediately taken to hospital". On Friday it was announced that she had died there.

While the police said there had been no "physical contact" between Amini and the officers, a number of campaigners said she had been tortured while in custody.

Prominent lawyer Saeed Dehghan said Amini had received fractures to her skull and described her death as "murder".

US President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, tweeted on Friday that Amini's death was "unforgiveable" and said that reports she had been "beaten in custody" needed to be investigated.

Footage circulated on social media showed Iranians protesting in the streets over her death.

In one clip, which cannot be independently verified by Middle East Eye, demonstrators chanted "Death to the dictator!", a common chant by anti-government activists generally directed against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei:

Protests were also reported in Amini's hometown of Saqez, in Kurdistan province:

Mahsa Alimardani, an Internet researcher focusing on freedom of expression and access to information online in Iran, told MEE that interacting with Iran's "morality police" was a daily reality for women in the country, but that this latest incident was provoking one of the biggest backlashes yet seen.

"I’m seeing women who are never even political or neutral about the hijab disturbed by what happened to Mahsa because it could have happened to literally anyone," she said.

"I am seeing calls to remove mandatory hijab and disband the morality police en masse. One instagram sticker campaign to disband the morality police has over 300k posts, majority of whom look like they're inside Iran. There has never been a more unanimous call for removing this infrastructure and law for enforcing mandatory hijab."

Before the announcement of Amini's death, President Ebrahim Raisi's office indicated in a press statement that he had instructed the minister of the interior to investigate the incident. The country's judicial authority also announced via its news agency Mizan Online that a special group had been formed to open an investigation.

'There has never been a more unanimous call for removing this infrastructure and law for enforcing mandatory hijab'

- Mahsa Alimardani, internet researcher

The incident has once again highlighted how fraught the issue of compulsory headscarves is in the Islamic Republic.

Women's rights activists have argued for decades that the hijab law is discriminatory and has been used as a means of suppressing women's involvement in Iranian society. Supporters of the ban claim it is necessary to enforce traditional Iranian values of modesty.

Raisi, who came to office on a conservative platform, has pushed for stricter enforcement of the hijab law, including bringing in facial recognition technology to monitor it.

Last month, reports circulated in Persian-language media that police in Iran would no longer arrest women for what authorities call "bad hijab" and instead issue fines.

However, a source at the national police headquarters later denied "the existence of a list of fines" as claimed by the Etemaad daily, which had published in a front-page article the details of fines for each category of "bad hijab".

"The escalation of hijab enforcement all summer is really coming to a head here," said Alimardani.

"All that remains to be seen is whether the regime takes this feedback or just responds with doubling down on more repression, which is often a trend in Iran."

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