Autumn of discontent in Iran

Manal Lotfy in London , Friday 23 Sep 2022

Iran is facing growing internal restlessness with increasing restrictions on personal freedoms and a deepening economic crisis.

Autumn of discontent in Iran
Protests broke out over the death of a young woman who had been arrested by the morality police that enforces a strict dress code (photo: AFP)


In the biggest crisis facing the Iranian authorities since President Ebrahim Raisi took office last year, angry demonstrations continued to protest against the killing of an Iranian-Kurdish woman at the hands of the country’s morality police for not wearing the hijab or Islamic headscarf “appropriately”.

The demonstrations that spread to Tehran, Mashhad, and Kerman among other cities reflect growing resentment against the Raisi government, which since taking power has tightened its grip on public space, strengthened control over what women wear, and increased arrests of women who do not wear the headscarf in an approved way.

Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman from western Iran, was visiting the capital Tehran with her family when she was detained by police as she exited a metro station. They accused her of not complying with the country’s hijab regulations and took her to a police station, telling her family she would be released after a “re-education” session.

But she suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma while in custody, state-affiliated media said. Her family insisted that she had no previous health problems, and activists asserted that she may have been beaten by police.

In a sign of the difficulties the Iranian authorities are facing in quelling the popular anger, there have been conflicting reports related to the suspension of the head of Iran’s morality police.

Several Iranian news outlets reported that Ahmed Mirzaei, the head of the morality security police of Greater Tehran, had been suspended from his role after the death of Amini, but Tehran police denied he had been suspended or fired.

Speaking at a press conference, Greater Tehran Police Commander Hossein Rahimi said Amini’s death in custody was an “unfortunate” incident he did not want to see repeated.

He said that Amini was stopped by the morality police, known as the “Gasht-e Ershad,” while walking in a park because her hijab was “inappropriate”. He claimed the police had not made mistakes and railed against the “cowardly accusations” being made against them.

“There was no negligence on the part of the police, not even a small slip; all the words published in cyberspace about the cause of death are pure lies.”

“There was no argument or resistance” during Amini’s detention, he said, claiming she was “even joking” while inside the morality police van. He admitted that “guidance patrol officers are equipped with body cameras, but in this instance they had no camera.”

Details of what happened at the police station were not released, but the Tehran police force published edited video of the arrest and detention.

The CCTV footage showed a woman they identified as Amini talking with a female official, who grabs her clothing. She is then seen holding her head in her hands and collapsing to the ground. The interior minister said on Saturday that Amini “apparently had previous physical problems.”

Iranian news outlets said that a CT scan of Amini’s head had showed a bone fracture and haemorrhage, seemingly indicating that she had died due to being struck on the head and in conflict with police sources that implied she had died due to a heart condition or epilepsy.

An Iranian reformist politician who previously worked with the government of former president Mohammad Khatami said that internal popular anger was more dangerous to Iran than sanctions and external threats.

“The government creates serious problems for itself by being preoccupied with restricting personal freedoms, arresting women, and restricting freedom of expression,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“It has been a year since the government took office, yet there has been no noticeable improvement in the economic situation, and the nuclear negotiations are stalling even though reaching a new deal will ease pressures on the economy, the riyal, the national currency, and the ordinary citizen.”

President Ebrahim Raisi, who since his election last year has tightened the enforcement of the headscarf law, spoke to Amini’s family by telephone on Sunday. “Your daughter is like my own daughter, and I feel that this incident happened to one of my loved ones. Please accept my condolences,” state media reported him as saying.

Although the police launched an investigation into the death, public anger did not subside amid fears that evidence would be tampered with in order not to hold those responsible for her murder to account.

Her death sparked immediate outrage over the government’s increasingly strict enforcement of dress codes for women. Last month, a video appeared to show a woman detained by Iran’s increasingly assertive guidance patrols being thrown from a speeding van.

In a show of defiance, Iranian women photographed themselves without headscarves and posted the pictures on social media.

In Tehran, several hundred people marched in the capital, including women who took off their hijabs, the ISNA news agency reported. Police responded with baton charges and teargas.

The US called for accountability, with a White House spokesperson saying that “Mahsa Amini’s death after injuries sustained while in police custody for wearing an ‘improper’ hijab is an appalling and egregious affront to human rights.”

The EU’s foreign affairs spokesperson said that “the Iranian authorities must ensure the fundamental rights of its citizens are respected and that those who are under any form of detention are not subject to any form of mistreatment.”

Raisi is in New York this week, where he will address the UN General Assembly meetings. He told reporters at Tehran airport that he has no plans to meet with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the event, AP reported.

Indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran appear to be close to stalling.

France’s foreign minister urged Iran on Monday to take the last offer on the table to revive the deal, saying the window of opportunity “is about to close.” A high-ranking EU official said he did not expect progress on the issue this week at the annual gathering of world leaders.

   *A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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