The 22-year-old is believed to have been beaten to death at a Tehran police station last week after "morality police" had reprimanded her clothing. The case has sparked the nation's outrage. But as ordinary Iranians testify, such beatings, torture and a home brand of misogyny are hallmarks of the 40-year Islamic Republic of Iran.
TEHRAN — The death in Iran of a 22-year-old Mahsa Amini — after she was arrested by the so-called "morality police" — has unleashed another wave of protests, as thousands of Iranians vent their fury against an intrusive and violent regime. Indeed, as tragically exceptional as the circumstances appear, the reaction reflects the daily reality of abuse by authorities, especially directed toward women.
Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian girl visiting Tehran with relatives, was detained by the regime's morality patrols on Sept. 13, apparently for not respecting the Islamic dress code that includes proper use of the hijab headscarf. Amini was declared dead two or three days after being taken into custody. Officials say she fainted and died, and blamed a preexisting heart condition. But neither her family nor anyone else in Iran believe that, as can be seen in the mounting protests that have now left at least three dead.
For Amini's was hardly the first arbitrary arrest, or the first suspected death in custody under Iran's Islamic regime.
Still, even in Iran, nobody expects to be beaten to death, as is what might have happened to Amini, over a loose headscarf or attire the police deem unseemly. Such arrests have been part of the nation's routine since the 1979 revolution that turned Iran into an Islamic Republic. Typically, if the situation stays under wraps, detainees receive a hefty fine together with a humiliating sermon.
Pregnant and punched
One female student told us about her pregnant sister's experience with the morality patrols. In 2021, she said, the sisters were stopped at a Tehran shopping mall and taken to the morality police's notorious headquarters — commonly referred to as Vozara ("Ministers") after the name of the street where it is located.
"My sister was pregnant but not yet showing. I told them 'my sister is pregnant, please let me stay instead of her.' One of [the policewomen] then hit my sister hard in the belly with her elbow, saying, 'a loose woman like this shouldn't be a mother.' My sister began bleeding an hour later," and though she was taken to hospital, she had a miscarriage."
Her headscarf was colorful rather than black. This was deemed to be provocative.
A 38-year-old woman from Tehran recalls how she was stopped in the summer of 2021, while heading to see the doctor in northern Tehran. She was wearing her mandatory headscarf and overcoat (or manteau) though the overcoat was open at the front. An agent called her over: "'Come here, lady. Have you been arrested before? Do you have a file?,' and I said no." She was soon put into a van alongside other girls, and taken to the Vozara police station. She was released hours later after she signed an affidavit.
A beautician from Tehran said morality patrols tend to gather in busy squares, perhaps especially in northern Tehran where the recalcitrant middle class live. One such busy place is Vanak Square, where she says her daughter was stopped some months ago and taken to Vozara. The headscarf she was wearing was colorful rather than black, and wasn't covering her ears: This was deemed to be provocative or flirty.
Another woman detained with her mother earlier this year said she wasn't wearing thick stockings under her overall. She told Kayhan London that both were taken to Vozara, where her mother was subjected to "the filthiest insults" and her father termed a "despicable" man for allowing his wife and daughter "loose on the streets." Her mother, a diabetic, had to be taken to hospital after having a fit.
Sept. 20 protests in Tehran in the wake of Mahsa Amini's murder
Another student recalled how her sister was arrested with her husband in 2012, a week after their wedding. She said the police suspected they were an unmarried couple, which is not allowed in Iran. Both were taken to Vozara, where the husband was taken to the basement and slapped in the face several times. The girl's mother later showed up with the marriage certificate, and haggled with the police for six hours before the couple were released.
An older woman observed that younger Iranians may not know that police violence today is derived from the loutish violence of the revolutionary militias, or comités, of the early post-revolutionary period, which forcefully helped the regime entrench itself in the early 1980s.
She recalled one incident from the 1980s during which policewomen (whom Iranians termed "crows" then for their black veils), spotted a girl with a layer of makeup. One of the agents spat in the palm of her hand and told her to cleanse the makeup with that.
All Iranians are seething at their humiliation.
A retired teacher recalled that one day, not long after the Revolution, when police and soldiers were outside the parliament in central Tehran, looking for females without a headscarf (whose use was not yet required or so widespread), and boys with jeans and T-shirts and long hair.
"It was morning and I was heading to work wearing a skirt and coat, until I was stopped and grabbed by members of a Comité ... I gave them such a beating we were laughing about it for a good while at home ... Of course, I also had some bitter experiences later on."
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