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Why Iranian women are burning their hijabs after the death of Mahsa Amini

A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran shows shows a demonstrator raising his arms and makes the victory sign in Tehran on Monday during a protest for Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's morality police.
AFP via Getty Images
A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran shows shows a demonstrator raising his arms and makes the victory sign in Tehran on Monday during a protest for Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's morality police.

Iranian women are burning their hijabs and cutting their hair short in protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by Iran's notorious "morality police," who enforce the country's rules on hijabs and other conservative Islamic modes of dress and behavior.

Here's what we know so far about Amini's death and the public furor it ignited, and the questions that remain:

Amini was arrested for allegedly breaking hijab rules

Amini, 22, died on Friday in northern Tehran. She had been arrested on Tuesday and reportedly was taken to a hospital shortly afterward.

Amini suffered multiple blows to the head before she died, according to London-based broadcaster Iran International.

Amini was arrested in her brother's car during a visit to see family members in the capital, the outlet reported. She was originally from Saqqez in Kurdistan province.

Her father says she was beaten to death in custody

People hold signs and chant slogans outside the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Wednesday during a protest over the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini.
Chris McGrath / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
People hold signs and chant slogans outside the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Wednesday during a protest over the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini.

Amini's family say officers beat her in the police van after her arrest, citing eyewitnesses who support that claim. Police reject the allegations, saying Amini died after being taken to a hospital because she had a heart attack.

Senior officials who are promising a full investigation include President Ebrahim Raisi, who called Amini's family on Sunday to assure them her death would be investigated.

"Your daughter is like my own daughter, and I feel that this incident happened to one of my loved ones," he said.

Iran's chief justice, Mohseni Ejei, has also promised a full investigation.

The United Nations called for a impartial inquiry into Amini's death.

"Mahsa 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 truth," acting U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif said in a statement.

Laws that require women in Iran to cover their heads in public remain "of concern," the U.N. said, adding that the morality police have recently stepped up street patrols.

Protesters and government loyalists cite powerful images of Amini

A photo of Amini lying comatose in a hospital is at the heart of a rallying cry for Iranians who want more freedoms and rights for women.

The government has pointed to its own images to prove Amini wasn't beaten in custody. Shortly after her death, Iranian police released surveillance camera footage of part of her arrest.

"The video shows the woman suddenly collapsing on a chair while she was talking by a female police in the police station," according to state-run IRNA news agency.

Critics want the morality police dismantled

A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran shows people gathering in Tehran on Monday during a protest for Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's morality police.
/ AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran shows people gathering in Tehran on Monday during a protest for Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's morality police.

"This is Iran's George Floyd moment," British-Iranian actor Omid Djalili said in a video posted online, drawing a parallel between demonstrators who want change in Iran and Americans who called for police reforms after Floyd's death in custody.

Social media has been buzzing with the unrest. On Wednesday morning, top hashtags in Iran included posts about police responses to ongoing protests over Amini's death and another that essentially states, "No to the Islamic Republic."

But backers of the establishment have been blasting out their own hashtag: "My Iran." Featuring patriotic images and photos of authority figures, the messages highlight how much the current dispute is part of a bigger fight over a country's national identity.

Women are burning their hijabs in protest

Iranians outraged by Amini's death have been demonstrating for nearly a week, with some women setting their headscarves on fire in the streets.

Video shared by BBC lead presenter Rana Rahimpour shows women standing on top of burning police cars, railing against the Islamic Republic.

"One question is whether this will stay as a hijab protest or mushroom into a larger anti-government movement," NPR's Peter Kenyon said on Tuesday.

At least seven people are reported to have been killed since the protests began throughout Iran, the BBC reported.

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Amini is the latest symbol of the oppression of Iranian women

In 2019 an Iranian woman named Sahar Khodayari dressed up as a man to sneak into a stadium and watch a men's soccer match.

When the 29-year-old was arrested by police and learned she could spend six months in jail, Khodayari set herself on fire in protest and died.

The incident sparked outrage in the country and beyond over the strict rules – and consequences for breaking those rules – that women in Iran face every day.

Gender-based violence against women, including so-called honor killings, continues in Iran, and the country's laws do little to protect them, experts say.

In a tweet in response to Amini's death, Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, called on the country to increase protections for women.

"Iran must end its violence against women for exercising their fundamental rights," Malley said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Joe Hernandez