Iran’s state media admitted on Thursday that at least 17 people have been killed in anti-government protests that have spread across the country. The unrest sparked the death of a woman who was arrested by the country’s so-called “morality police,” apparently for not covering her hair, as required by Iran’s strict Islamic laws.
A charity operating in Iran put the death toll higher at 31, but CBS News could not confirm the number.
Morality police, who are specifically tasked with enforcing Iran’s strict Islamic dress code and other religious edicts, arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last week while her family were visiting the capital, Tehran.
The special unit accused her of wearing “inappropriate clothing”. She died after three days in custody, with officials saying she suffered a heart attack. Critics believe she was beaten after a picture of her injured, bloodied and intubated body emerged.
“Iranian women, under the law imposed in 1981 after the [Islamic] Revolution, must cover their hair and dress modestly,” said Dr. Sanam Vakil, Middle East policy expert and Iran specialist at London think tank Chatham House, told CBS News. “For the past 40 years, Iranian women have been pushing back against this veil, and there’s a vice squad patrolling the streets, bringing women in, punishing them.”
Amini’s death has sparked the largest mass protests in Iran since at least 2019, when public anger over skyrocketing gas prices drew huge crowds to the streets.
These new protests have spread from Iran’s Kurdistan region, where Amini lived, to at least 50 cities and towns across the country, according to a human rights official and other opposition groups working in Iran.
Kurdistan Governor Ismail Zareikosha said earlier this week that three people had been killed in his province, but he insisted Iranian security forces were not responsible, instead blaming “enemies of Iran”.
Internet access in parts of the country was shut down on Thursday, a day after Iran’s Communications Minister Issa Zarepour warned such a move could be taken amid protests.
“Due to security issues and the ongoing debates in the country, restrictions on the internet can be decided and applied by the security apparatus, but overall we haven’t had bandwidth reduction,” Zarepour was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency.
Opposition broadcaster Manoto TV claimed that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has removed a large number of videos from its Instagram page related to the protests. The company also said Instagram removed a video message from Reza Pahlavi, the exiled former crown prince of Iran, addressing the protesters.
Internet access also slowed or was cut off during the 2019 protests, before government security forces cracked down. Videos and images of defiance and protest were still being uploaded to social media on Thursday, showing people destroying symbols of government violence, including police cars and water cannon trucks, and defacing images of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.
Some women have protested by removing their headscarves in public and burning them on bonfires. Others have cut their hair in public in front of clapping crowds.
“It shows the level of public anger. People just get sick of it and do it,” Chatham House resident Vakil told CBS News. “This is a generation of Iranians pushing back.”