She traveled to Tehran to visit relatives, a dark-skinned 22-year-old woman from the Kurdistan region of Iran. But outside a subway station, the “morality police” arrested Mahsa Amini for allegedly failing to cover her hair completely, and dragged her into a police van.
Three days later, she was dead.
Amini’s death in the capital has ignited a wave of protests across the country, revealing raw anger among Iranian women at their treatment by the regime and an unprecedented willingness to fight the government.
“Many people are suggesting that this could be my daughter, my sister, my wife,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “This made people tremble, that she might not come back every time a woman leaves town.”
As Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi met world leaders in New York for the United Nations General Assembly this week, extraordinary scenes have emerged in his country, with women removing their headscarves and even burning them in front of them. the obscene crowds, according to. videos post online.
The combination of viral videos and pent-up anger represents a potential “George Floyd” moment for Iran, Ghaemi said, with the regime now “backed into a corner because of how innocent this woman was and there were no grounds that he treated her so violently. .”
Iran’s UN mission did not respond to a request for comment.
Raisi ordered an investigation into Amini’s death and offered her condolences to her father in a phone call, according to Iranian state media.
“I learned about this incident during my trip to Uzbekistan, and I immediately ordered my colleagues to investigate the matter specially,” Raisi said on the call, according to his official website. “I promise you that I will demand this question from the person responsible for institutions so that its dimensions are clarified.”
The president emphasized that he considers all Iranian girls as his own children. “Your daughter is like my daughter, and I think this incident happened to one of my family members. Please accept my condolences,” he said.
Eyewitnesses – who were also in the van – told Amini’s father that she was beaten up in a police vehicle on the way to the detention centre, human rights groups say. However, Iranian authorities said she died of a heart attack and called the incident “tragic”.
“They said Mahsa had heart disease and epilepsy but as the father who raised her for 22 years, I say out loud that Mahsa had no illness. She was in perfect health,” Amini’s father told an Iranian news outlet.
Women’s rights advocates have fought democracy since its early days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, protesting against the veil or mandatory hijab, as well as a series of laws that critics and United Nations rights monitors say make citizens of the they are second grade.
But human rights groups say the women’s movement has gained new strength from social media in recent years and that a younger generation is more willing to challenge the regime.
Since 2017, Iranian women have increasingly opposed the hijab law online, posting videos of themselves removing the headscarf and declarations that the government has no right to tell a woman how to dress.
Since Raisi’s election in June, the government has deployed more morality police units, which patrol the streets to ensure women adhere to the regime’s strict women’s dress code, said Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher based in London.
“One very distressing trend in recent months has been the persecution of women who defy the mandatory veiling laws. The level of violence faced by women on the street is truly appalling,” she said.
“And because there is now a more vocal opposition, and they are campaigning against the mandatory veiling laws in Iran, the Iranian authorities are also increasing their attacks on women in the streets,” Bahreini said.
But activists have armed themselves with camera phones and hashtags to push back, mobilize civil disobedience and expose what they allege is a surge in policing against women.
The digital campaign is to be commended by Masih Alinejadan Iranian women’s rights activist who immigrated to the United States and resigned from the regime.
she invited Iranian women to post protest videos on social media under their #WhiteWednesdays hashtag campaign. As a result, she has amassed millions of followers online and the FBI alleges that she was recently targeted by the regime in a kidnapping plot.
For the Iranian government, “the mandatory hijab is just a small piece of cloth. It’s like the main pillar of the Islamic Republic,” Alinejad told NBC News.
“When mullahs took power in Iran, what was the first thing they did? They forced women to wear the hijab. Why? Because they use our bodies, like a political platform. So they write their our own ideology on our bodies.”
The regime probably fears that instituting the mandatory hijab rule could open the door to unraveling the entire theocratic system, said Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher at Article 19, an NGO that promotes freedom of expression.
“They don’t want to give in to this one point in case they have to give in to a lot of other restrictions that will help keep the regime in place,” she said.
On July 12, when the Iranian government organized an annual “loss” day to promote the mandatory hijab law, its opponents organized counter-protests, post videos themselves to remove their headscarves in public. Some of the protesters were identified and arrested, but a subsequent online protest on social media under the hashtag #No2Hijab attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters.
“The result of this campaign in Iran was to incite government authorities, clerics and imams,” said Atena Daemi, an Iranian human rights activist who was jailed for seven years for protesting against the death penalty and did three hunger strikes.
Government officials and clerics have called for harsher punishments for women protesting the law, she said.
“On the other hand, women grew more motivated to continue their fight against the compulsory hijab because with each new action, they discover that they are so many, they find each other, and unite and organize for the next move,” said Daemi.
Human rights experts and activists say Iran has never wavered from the harsh restrictions on women since the revolution, even when more pragmatic reformers were in power.
According to Iran’s interpretation of Sharia law, women cannot travel abroad without the permission of a father or husband, they are forbidden to sing or ride bicycles, they are denied custody of their children if they remarry, they can only seek a divorce under circumstances limited, it is possible. legally married at the age of 13 and even younger if the court allows and can only inherit one eighth of her husband’s estate. Iran ranked 143 out of 146 countries surveyed in a recent World Economic Forum report on gender pay gaps around the world.
When faced with large street protests in the past, the Iranian government has responded with massive force, including opening fire on unarmed protesters, according to human rights groups and Western governments. At least four people have been killed by police so far in this week’s protests, according to Iran-focused human rights organizations.
NBC News has not verified the claims.
State media alleged that foreign agents and nefarious elements were behind the street protests.
It is not clear whether the protests will snowball further, or whether the authorities will find a way to dampen the momentum of public anger.
Whatever the outcome of the current protests, Amini’s death meant the regime “is definitely losing the battle for legitimacy,” Alimardani said.
Jail sentences and arrests that the regime radicalized only Iranian women served as a catalyst for further protests, Alinejad and other activists said.
“We have so many Rosa Parks in Iran. For me, I don’t see Iranian women like victims. They are like heroes,” Alinejad said, referring to the US civil rights pioneer.
Daemi, one of Iran’s most prominent women’s rights advocates, said she has no plans to abandon her struggle despite the threat to her health and family.
“I am confident that humanity will prevail,” she said. “One day, the sun will break through the gloom.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com