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Anti-government protests grow in Iran after a woman died in police custody

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Iran, women are burning their headscarves, and protests are sweeping dozens of cities. The protests follow the death of a young woman who was arrested by Iran's so-called morality police, who enforced the country's rules on wearing hijab. Human rights groups have reported several deaths from these events. Well, Golnaz Esfandiari has been covering this for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Golnaz Esfandiari, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: First, just tell us quickly a little bit about Mahsa Amini. This is the young woman who died last week.

ESFANDIARI: Mahsa Amini was 22. She was visiting Tehran from her hometown of Kurdistan. She was detained by the morality police, allegedly for violating the hijab rule, which became compulsory following the 1979 revolution. She was arrested on September 13. Three days later, she died. The police says that she had a sudden heart attack while in detention, but activists and others have said that she was tortured or beaten in the head, and that's why she died.

KELLY: And we should note, her family says that she was healthy...

ESFANDIARI: Exactly.

KELLY: ...A healthy 22-year-old woman. So her death has sparked protests, as I say, that are getting bigger rather than smaller, it seems, and across many cities across Iran. How has this particular case, how has the hijab become such a flashpoint?

ESFANDIARI: Look; I think the thing very important to know is that when Iranian women see what happened to Mahsa, they think it could have happened to them because you hardly find an Iranian woman who has not been either warned or detained or harassed by the morality police. So we all know - we've all had this experience. And I was talking to several women in Iran, and they told me, look; even if she wasn't tortured, but she probably died from fear - she had a heart attack from fear - because they know how scary this is.

And this hijab has been imposed on Iranian women - they don't have a choice - for four decades, and the establishment has used propaganda. It's all over. You see posters promoting the hijab. Then they use also force. They use the morality police, which is basically a tool of state violence against women. You know, people have had enough. Women have had enough. As you said, they're burning their scarves in public. They're burning symbols of the Islamic Republic. They're burning symbols of state violence against women.

KELLY: How are Iran's leaders responding? I saw that today, Friday, the government was calling for pro-government protests.

ESFANDIARI: Yes, exactly. They've staged state-sponsored protests today in many cities to basically counter this anti-establishment protests that have been happening for a week. And they've been also using force against protesters. There are reports of at least 30 - that 30 people have been killed. And they've also imposed internet - very severe internet restrictions.

KELLY: Just things like shutting down Instagram, shutting down the ways people can communicate?

ESFANDIARI: Shutting down WhatsApp and absolutely - so people have - it's been very hard for people to get online. But despite all these measures, as you said, we've had protests even in very, very conservative cities - in Rome. Rome, you know, is the Iranian Vatican.

KELLY: This comes as the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has been very ill. He recently canceled all his meetings. Is it fair to say this feels a more unsettled moment than we've seen in some time - in years - in Iran?

ESFANDIARI: I agree. There are the reports and rumors about Khamenei's death. He appeared in public after two weeks, and interestingly, he didn't say a word about all these protests. It adds pressure to the government, which we've seen protests over the economy on a nearly daily basis in the past month. And there's also an impasse in the nuclear talks, which could give Iran some kind of economic relief. So, yeah, it's a very sensitive moment for Iran.

KELLY: Journalist Golnaz Esfandiari - she's a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty based in Prague. Thank you.

ESFANDIARI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUNG LEAN SONG, "AGONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Karen Zamora
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.