In the video, a massive crowd cheers as a woman lifts a pair of scissors to her hair – exposed, without a hijab in sight. The sea of people, many of them men, roar as she chops off her ponytail and raises her fist in the air.
It was a powerful act of defiance Tuesday night in the Iranian city of Kerman, where women are required to wear hijabs (or headscarves) in public, as outrage over the death of a woman in police custody fuels protests across the country.
Iranian authorities said Wednesday that three people, including a member of the security forces, have been killed in the unrest, which has stretched into a fifth day.
Human rights groups have reported that at least seven people have been killed.
The death last week of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested in Tehran by morality police – a dedicated unit that enforces strict dress codes for women, such as wearing the compulsory headscarf – has sparked an outpouring anger over issues ranging from freedoms in the Islamic Republic to the crippling economic impacts of sanctions.
The protests are striking for their scale, ferocity and rare feminist nature; the last demonstrations of this size were three years ago, after the government hiked gas prices in 2019.
After starting Saturday at Amini’s funeral in Iran’s Kurdistan province, the demonstrations have swept much of the country, leading to clashes with security forces trying to quell them.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made no mention of the protests during a speech on Wednesday to veterans and military commanders commemorating the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.
The prosecutor in the western city of Kermanshah said two people were killed during “riots” on Tuesday, the semi-official Fars news agency reported. The official IRNA state news agency said a police “assistant” was killed and four others injured during protests in Shiraz, the capital city of Fars province in southwestern Iran.
A 23-year-old in Urmia and a 16-year-old in Piranshahar were shot dead during protests on Tuesday, bringing the total number of demonstrators killed to seven, according to two Kurdish human rights groups monitoring violations in Iran – Kurdistan Human Rights Network and Hengaw, a Norwegian-registered organization.
Iranian authorities did not confirm the deaths.
Thousands took to the streets Tuesday night, with videos of protests emerging from dozens of towns and cities – ranging from the capital Tehran to more traditionally conservative strongholds like Mashad.
Footage shows some protesters chanting, “Women, life, freedom.” Others can be seen setting up bonfires, scuffling with police, or removing and burning their headscarves – as well as destroying posters of the country’s Supreme Leader and shouting, “Death to the dictator.”
In one video in Tehran, young protesters march around a bonfire on the street at night, chanting: “We are the children of war. Come on and fight, and we’ll fight back.”
Almost all the provincial towns in Iran’s Kurdish region, including Kermanshah and Hamedan, have seen demonstrations as well.
Witnesses tell CNN that the Tuesday night demonstrations appeared to be “flash protests” – meaning groups form and disperse quickly, to avoid run-ins with Iran’s security forces after the escalating violence of the last week.
A source said there was at least one instance of a heavy-handed police response on Tuesday, near Iran’s Enghelab (“Revolution”) Square on the western side of Tehran University – historically a rallying point for protests.
“Two young men were hit and beaten up by plainclothes police and anti-riot police, then dragged to the van in front of (the) subway entrance gate,” an eyewitness told CNN. “A wounded girl lying on the sidewalk was taken by ambulance to the hospital, and five others arrested on the north side of Enghelab Square.”
Hengaw said 450 people have been injured in the protests.
Promises of a ‘thorough investigation’
Amini was stopped and detained by Iran’s morality police last Tuesday. Iranian officials said that she died last Friday after suffering a “heart attack” and falling into a coma following her arrest.
However, her family said she had no pre-existing heart condition, according to Emtedad news, an Iranian pro-reform media outlet which claimed to have spoken to Amini’s father.
Edited security camera footage released by Iran’s state media appeared to show Amini collapsing at a “re-education” center where she was taken to receive “guidance” on her attire.
Iran’s morality police are part of the country’s law enforcement and are tasked with enforcing the strict social rules of the Islamic Republic, including its dress code that mandates women wear a headscarf, or hijab, in public.
An aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei promised a “thorough investigation” into Amini’s death during a meeting with her family in their home on Monday, according to Iran’s semi-official Nour News agency.
Abdolreza Pourzahabi, Khamenei’s representative in Iran’s Kurdish province, said the Supreme Leader “is sad” and that the family’s sorrow “is his sorrow too,” according to Nour.
He added that he hopes the family shows “good will to help bring back calm in society.”
During a news conference, also on Monday, Greater Tehran Police Commander Hossein Rahimi denied “false accusations” against the Iranian police, saying they had “done everything” to keep Amini alive.
He added that Amini had not been harmed physically during or after she was taken into custody, and called her death “unfortunate.”
In the wake of Amini’s death, internet monitoring website Netblocks has documented internet outages since Friday – a tactic Iran has previously used to prevent the spread of protests.
On Monday, the watchdog said that “real-time network data show a near-total disruption to internet connectivity in Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province.”
Iran’s minister of communications, Issa Zarepour, said that internet services could be disrupted for “security purposes and discussions related to recent events,” by security forces, the country’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported.