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Iran: has anything changed a year after Mahsa Amini protests erupted?

September 11, 2023 at 1:38 pm

People, carrying banners and flags, stage demonstration to solidarity with protestors in Iran, which was triggered by the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody, on January 21, 2023 at Farragut Square in Washington, DC. [Celal Güneş – Anadolu Agency]

Iran’s rulers have intensified a clampdown on dissent nearly one year since the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini sparked protests which spiralled into some of the worst political turmoil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Reuters has reported.

Protests began soon after the 16 September death of Kurdish Iranian Amini, 22, who had been arrested by morality police three days earlier for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory Islamic dress code. Amini, described as a shy person who minded her own business and stayed clear of politics, was detained as she stepped out of a train station in Tehran.

News of her death circulated on social media. Protests erupted at her funeral in her hometown Saqez and then spread across the country with demonstrators chanting “Woman, life, freedom” in a furious challenge to Iran’s clerical rulers.

While Amini’s family said she had been killed by blows to her head and limbs, the authorities said she had died due to existing medical problems, further fuelling anger over her death.

With women and young people often at the forefront, protesters targeted symbols of the Islamic Republic, burning pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and chanting “Death to the Dictator”. Women, including schoolgirls, took off and burned headscarves, in a revolt against laws obliging women to cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothes.

The protests were particularly intense in areas home to ethnic minorities that have long faced discrimination by the state, including Kurds in the north west and Baluchis in the south east.

Meanwhile, a growing number of women disregarded the dress code. After a chess player and a climber competed without wearing headscarves other prominent women defied the authorities by violating the hijab law and voicing support for the protests. The authorities have since imposed travel bans and jail terms on several public figures from athletes to actresses.

Read: Iran detains Mahsa Amini’s uncle as anniversary of her death, protests loom

Security forces restricted access to messaging apps and confronted the leaderless protesters fiercely, using tear gas, clubs and, in some cases, live ammunition even as the protests rumbled on into the new year. A paramilitary volunteer militia, the Basij, played a prominent part in the crackdown.

According to rights groups, more than 500 people — including 71 minors — were killed, hundreds were wounded and thousands were arrested. Iran carried out seven executions linked to the unrest.

Although the authorities have not given any official estimated death toll, they admitted that dozens of the security forces were killed in the “riots”.

Buttressed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the ruling elite appears to remain deeply entrenched in power despite its initial difficulties in subduing the protests. Nevertheless, the morality police largely vanished from the streets after Amini died in their custody. However, as the protests fizzled out they returned to the streets and surveillance cameras have been installed to identify and penalise unveiled women.

The authorities in Tehran describe the veil as “one of the principles of the Islamic Republic” and have ordered both private and public sectors to deny services to any women who have discarded it. Thousands of non-compliant businesses have been closed temporarily as a result. With many Iranians saying that the number of unveiled women continues to grow, the parliament is considering longer prison terms for anyone who flouts the dress code, along with harsher penalties for celebrities and businesses that violate the rules.

Western countries have imposed new sanctions on security forces and dozens of Iranian officials over the protests, straining already difficult ties even further. Even so, recent actions by the security forces suggest that Iran’s rulers intend to brook no flicker of dissent as the anniversary of Amini’s death approaches.

Activists have accused the authorities of a campaign to intimidate and instil fear, arresting, summoning for questioning, threatening or firing people connected to the protests. Journalists, lawyers, activists, students, academics, artists, public figures and family members of protesters who have been killed, especially among ethnic minorities, have been targeted in recent weeks.

Iranian officials blamed the unrest on foreign foes, notably the US and Israel, raising the stakes for anybody facing arrest. However, in cracking down they risk widening a rift between the clerical leadership and ordinary Iranians increasingly dismayed by an economy hammered by sanctions and mismanagement. It all adds up to a potential source of further unrest in the future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.