For an update on the protests, see the Commons Library Briefing, 2022 Iran protests: Human rights and international response

In September 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, was arrested by Iran’s morality police (also known as Gashte Ershad, or guidance patrols) for her alleged noncompliance with the country’s Islamic dress code.

Three days later, Amini died while in custody. Iranian officials deny reports that she was beaten by police and say she died of natural causes.

Her death has triggered widespread protests, which are now in their third week. In addition to street protests, this has included some Iranian women and girls removing their hijabs and cutting their hair.

These are not the first protests that Ebrahimi Raisi has faced as Iran’s president, with the rising cost of living motivating protesters earlier this year. These were contained by what the UN described as the “excessive use of force” by Iran’s security forces.

This Insight describes the background to the new protests, the response of the Iranian Government and the international community, and their significance.

Women’s rights in Iran

Equal protection of men and women before the law is guaranteed in Iran’s constitution. Girls can also attend school and university.

However, women and girls are subject to discrimination. This includes in family law where wives must seek the permission of their husbands to take up employment, obtain a passport, and usually forgo maintenance claims to secure a divorce.

Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, wearing a hijab has been obligatory in public places. In August 2022, President Raisi introduced further dress restrictions.

Punishments for non-observance have included bans on entering banks and using public transport.

In recent months, it’s been reported that Iran’s morality police have become more active in enforcing these restrictions. In September, one Iranian official said more than 300 people had been arrested for opposing the dress rules since mid-July.

Protests are in their third week

Protests first broke out in the Iranian Kurdish town of Saqez in mid-September, where Amini was buried. They have now spread to all of Iran’s 31 provinces.

Iran’s Government has introduced restrictions on the internet and communications, making it hard to assess the full extent of the protests. Cities including the capital Tehran, minority ethnic groups such as the Kurds, and university students and schoolchildren have been involved.

The UN has condemned the “apparent unnecessary and disproportionate use of force” against protesters by Iranian security forces.

The number of fatalities and arrests remains uncertain: Norway-based Iran Human Rights says at least 154 people had been killed by 4 October. State media provided a lower figure of 41, to 26 October. Officials confirm at least 1,200 arrests. Many are teenagers.

How has the Iranian Government responded?

Iran’s Government has pledged to investigate Amini’s death.

In addition to reported violence by security forces, Iran has blamed the agitation on foreign influence, including that of the US, the EU, and Israel. In both September and October, its Government summoned the UK ambassador to complain about UK media coverage and of UK “interference.”

Iran has also accused Kurdish groups in Iraq’s Kurdistan region of supporting the unrest, and launched drone and artillery attacks in late September. Iraq, the UK and US were among those condemning Iran’s actions.

What has the international response been?

In September, the UN Office for Human Rights called for an independent investigation into Amini’s death, condemned the use of “disproportionate force,” and said the laws regulating what women wear should be repealed.

The UK Government has summoned Iranian diplomatic officials, and called on security forces to refrain from violence.

Iran is already one of the UK’s human rights priority countries and in its latest report, published in 2021, the Government raised wider concerns for the country’s use of the death penalty and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and belief. The UK already sanctions some Iranian officials in response to human rights violations, and sanctioned the country’s morality police in October.

The US also has extensive sanctions in place against Iran. In October, President Biden said he would impose “further costs” on those suppressing the protests.

The morality police were sanctioned in September.

Iran is due to participate in the 2022 Men’s Football World Cup in Qatar. A rights group, Open Stadiums, has called for them to be banned.

Talks are stalled on restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran. Some analysts have suggested now is not the time for sanctions relief, regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks, in order to maintain pressure on the regime.

How significant are the protests?

All of Iran’s 31 provinces are affected and the Government’s response has so far failed to dampen the protests. Internationally, protests have been held at Iranian embassies. In Afghanistan, women protesting in solidarity were dispersed by Taliban gunfire in September.

While analysts have noted the national nature of the protests, the role of women, and substantial division in society they represent, they are cautious on the longer-term impact on the Islamic Republic. They note that, to date:

However, some change in the policy on enforcement of hijab has been hinted. Some in the Iranian Parliament have suggested police reforms and Raisi himself has implied possible change, stating that “values cannot change but methods can.”

Further reading

About the author: Philip Loft is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs.

Photo by sina drakhshani on Unsplash

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