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Why are hijabs legally required in Iran, and how did a woman’s death in police custody reignite demands to change that? A primer on the anti-regime demonstrations and calls for a general strike

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Toulouse, France, Dec. 3: A protestor with red tears painted on her face takes part in a rally in support of the demonstrations in Iran.CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Iranians have been risking (and sometimes losing) their lives in protests against ruling clerics, demanding an end to the Islamic republic’s hijab law and justice for a young woman who was arrested in September for allegedly breaking it, then died in police custody. It is one of the largest waves of mass dissent since the Green Movement of 2009, and the world is watching closely as its leaders call for a nationwide general strike and authorities threatened further violent crackdowns. Here’s a primer.

Why are there protests in Iran now? Who’s who and how it escalated

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A tribute to Mahsa Amini in Los Angeles on Sept. 22.Bing Guan/Reuters

Mahsa Amini

Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old from Kurdistan province, was visiting Tehran on Sept. 13 when morality-police officers arrested her, claiming that her headscarf, or hijab, was too loose. She fell into a coma and died in hospital three days later. Police said her death was due to a heart attack, while the state coroner said it was a result of pre-existing medical conditions. Her father has said she had no history of heart problems, but her body had bruises on her legs; he suspects she was abused in custody. That’s ignited anger across Iran. Security forces have shot and killed hundreds of demonstrators so far, and at the start of December, some protest leaders called for a three-day general strike to step up the pressure.

Guidance Patrol, Iran’s morality police

Established in 2005, the Guidance Patrol is a vice squad reporting directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They require women to wear headscarves that completely cover their hair in public, and human-rights groups have long accused them of using the vaguely defined rules to arbitrarily detain women and girls, then torture them. The force’s current status is unclear: Chief prosecutor Mohamed Jafar Montazeri told the Iranian Labour News Agency on Dec. 4 that it “had been closed,” but the Interior Ministry did not confirm that, and according to state media, Mr. Montazeri is not the official in charge of the morality police.

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Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi.Iranian Presidency Office via AP

Ebrahim Raisi

Iran’s hard-line President, elected last year, has reversed the more moderate approach of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, who sometimes told the morality police they were too aggressive. Mr. Raisi is a Khamenei protégé who was put in charge of the nation’s judiciary in 2019, when a hike in fuel prices triggered anti-regime protests (more on those later); he is accused of suppressing protests through human-rights abuses.

Basij and the Revolutionary Guard

The Basij, known officially as the Organization for the Mobilization of the Oppressed, is a volunteer paramilitary group set up in 1979 and then incorporated into the Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran’s armed forces. The Basij were shock troops in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, then took on a more domestic role to combat student protests of the 1990s. They have broad powers to attack and detain protesters, monitor people through a network of informers and launch cyberattacks on perceived enemies.

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Tehran in the upheaval of the Islamic Revolution: Women demand equal rights on March 12, 1979; a few weeks earlier, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arrives from France, where he had lived in exile for years; thousands rally outside the U.S. embassy in 1981 during the Iranian hostage crisis. Richard Tomkins/AP; Gabriel Duval/AFP/Getty Images; Peter Bregg/CP

Why are hijabs mandatory in Iran? A history of women’s rights and the Islamic Revolution

When Iranians overthrew their monarchy in 1979, many women took part in the cause, calling for more democracy and free expression. Headscarves were widely worn before the revolution, but not required. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decided to change that, enacting rules for “modest” dress that applied not just for Muslims but all women in Iran, including foreign visitors.

The regime justified this by citing parts of the Quran about how women should behave piously, but Muslim scholars around the world have different interpretations of whether passages referring to hijab – an Arabic word that also means a covering or partition – literally require women to veil their heads.

No other country today has a hijab policy as strict as Iran’s, except Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; but whereas the Taliban also forbid women from higher education and many forms of employment, Iran does not. Over the decades, women have put their voting power behind reformist presidential candidates, such as Mohammad Khatami, and protests such as this one.

The current Iranian demonstrators have stressed that they are not fighting against hijabs per se, but the draconian enforcement of a law with vague standards for what a “proper” hijab should look like.

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The ethnic dimension of Iran’s protests

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A man waves a Kurdish flag in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, on Sept. 24 at a protest against Ms. Amini's killing.SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images

Most of Iran’s population of 87 million is ethnically Persian and follows Shia Islam, but the regions where ethnic minorities or Sunnis are numerous – such as Ms. Amini’s home of Kurdistan – have seen some of the deadliest crackdowns on dissent so far. Protest leaders have stressed how ethnic groups are working together in a country-wide uprising, with chants such as “Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Lors, are together”; they accuse authorities of blaming the protest on minority dissidents to justify crackdowns in their home territories. The affected groups include:

  • Kurds: Numbering about 10 million, Iranian Kurds are part of a larger diaspora spread across neighbouring Iraq and Turkey, who are largely Sunni and speak dialects of a common language, Kurdish. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have suppressed unrest in Kurdistan for decades.
  • Baluchis: A Sunni-majority ethnic group of about two million, Baluchis make up more than a quarter of people executed by authorities since 2022, Amnesty International says. Iran has blamed recent violence on Jaish al-Adl, or Army of Justice, a Baluchi militant organization.
  • Arabs: There are about 1.6 million Arabs in Iran, mostly along the Iraqi border in Khuzestan. They’ve long complained of employment and political discrimination from Tehran, which in turn accuses Sunni Arab states – such as its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia – of backing unrest in the region.

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Tehran, 2009: A supporter of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi holds his picture and a wristband in green, his campaign colour, at a rally a few days before disputed national elections. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Athens, 2022: A protester shows the word ‘freedom’ on her red-painted hand on Oct. 1, a day of global protests in solidarity with Iranian women and the democracy movement. Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

How could this end? Lessons from past Iranian protest movements

Several times since 1979, Iranians have risen up against their theocratic state, only to be suppressed by clerical and military authorities. Often, the successes of these movements aren’t evident until much later when they coalesce around reformist political candidates. These include:

  • 2009: The Green Movement is the largest anti-government uprising so far, triggered by a disputed election that brought hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency instead of reformist Mir Hussein Mousavi. Millions took part through the summer and fall of 2009, but the movement slowed down as arrests and internet censorship continued. Some Green supporters later rallied behind Mr. Rouhani’s successful election campaigns.
  • 2017-18: When western countries lifted their anti-nuclear sanctions in 2016, Iran’s leaders promised an economic turnaround that never came, at least not outside the oil industry. In late 2017, tens of thousands took to the streets, demanding jobs and higher living standards. These protests were smaller and had fewer clear leaders than in 2009, and they were quelled within months.
  • 2019-20: The Rouhani government’s decision to reduce fuel subsidies sparked widespread protests that came to be called Black November. These segued into more anti-regime demonstrations in 2020 after Iran’s military mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran – killing 176 people, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents – then tried to deny involvement.

Observers of the current protests have noted how many of the leaders are young women fed up with the conservative Islamic dress code, and how much support the movement has from other constituencies, such as workers in Iran’s crucial oil industry. It is too early to tell how this might play out, but few expect Iranian authorities to back down.

Upheaval in Iran: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel

Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, spoke with The Decibel in September about why Mahsa Amini’s death sparked such outrage, and where it might lead. Subscribe for more episodes.


Sheema Khan: To the ruling elites, be they secular or religious: Just leave Muslim women alone

Ratna Omidvar: We can help Iranian women and girls by seizing the assets of corrupt officials

Marsha Lederman: Stop telling women what to wear – in Iran, but also here at home

Thomas Juneau: Could protests in Iran spark a regime change?

Compiled by Globe staff

With reports from Associated Press, Reuters and Evan Annett

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