Why are women burning their hijabs in protest in Iran?

LONDON — Protests led by women have erupted across Iran following the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody.

Mahsa Amini, from Kurdistan, was visiting Tehran on Sept. 13 when she was detained by Iran's so-called morality police, reportedly for violating the dress code. According to Sky News, Amini was told by the authorities that she was wearing her headscarf too loosely. She died on Sept. 16 after three days in a coma.

Activists and Amini’s family claim she died from injuries sustained from a beating by police. Authorities in Iran, however, deny any mistreatment and claim that Amini suffered “sudden heart failure.”

Protesters raise three identical pictures of Mahsa Amini.
Protesters in Cologne, Germany, hold images of Mahsa Amini on Wednesday after her death in police custody in Iran. (Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The news of Amini’s death sparked anger nationwide, and thousands of Iranians took to the streets. As of Thursday, protests had spread to at least 80 towns and cities across the country. State television has put the death toll in the clashes at 17, but a human rights group says at least 31 have been killed.

On Tuesday, footage circulated on social media of women burning their hijabs in demonstrations and of a woman cutting off her hair in an act of public defiance. A wave of videos has been posted online of women cutting their hair in solidarity.

In response, the Iranian government shut off internet access to several cellular networks and blocked access to a number of Western apps, including Instagram and WhatsApp.

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions on leaders of military and police forces in Iran. “Mahsa Amini was a courageous woman whose death in Morality Police custody was yet another act of brutality by the Iranian regime’s security forces against its own people,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote in the statement.

The Treasury statement added: "These officials oversee organizations that routinely employ violence to suppress peaceful protesters and members of Iranian civil society, political dissidents, women's rights activists, and members of the Iranian Baha'i community.”

Iranian demonstrators gather around a blaze in the middle of a wide thoroughfare.
A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran on Sept. 21 shows demonstrators burning a garbage can in Tehran at a protest for Amini. (AFP via Getty Images)

The United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Nada Al-Nashif, called for Amini’s death to be investigated, in response to reports that the morality police beat her with a baton. “Miss Amini’s tragic death and allegations of torture and ill-treatment must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated by an independent competent authority, that ensures, in particular, that her family has access to justice and the truth,” the statement read.

Amini’s father, Amjad, told BBC Persian that he was not allowed to see his daughter’s body, which had been wrapped for burial, leaving only her feet and face visible. "There were bruises on her feet," he said. He added that the authorities were “lying” in claiming that she had suffered from poor health. "She has not been to any hospital at all in the past 22 years, other than for a few cold-related sicknesses,” he said.

But what are the laws surrounding hijabs? At the end of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran’s authorities imposed a dress code that required all women to wear what they deemed as “proper” clothing. This included a headscarf and loose-fitting garments.

Before this, women were free to decide whether to wear a hijab, with some bowing to family pressure or following tradition. In charge of enforcing these dress codes were the Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrols), also known as "morality police."

Young men wearing their hair long enough to reach their collars hold hands to form a protective ring around women raising their hands in protest.
Protected by young men, a group of young women protest having to wear the veil at a march in Tehran on March 10, 1979, during the Islamic Revolution. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

“Women who do not wear the hijab can be fined or imprisoned,” Tara Sepehri Far, the Iran and Kuwait researcher of Human Rights Watch, told Yahoo News.

“And for 40 years, women have been resisting it through individual collective acts of resistance. I think over the past 10 years or so, this has become part of the mainstream political discourse. For the past five years, we have seen more acts of defiance by people who actually take it as activism.”