Demonstrators gather around a burning barricade during a protest for Mahsa Amini in Tehran on Monday.

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Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  — 

A young Iranian woman was pulled off the streets of Tehran by the country’s notorious morality police and taken to a “re-education center” for lessons in modesty last week. Three days later, she was dead.

The government has strongly rejected responsibility for 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death, but the news has nonetheless galvanized thousands of Iranian women who have for decades faced the wrath of the Islamic Republic’s morality enforcers firsthand.

Amini’s story has pulled Iran’s apparatus of discipline back into the limelight, raising the question of accountability and impunity enjoyed by the country’s clerical elite.

“It would be hard to find an average Iranian woman or an average family who does not have a story of interaction with [the morality police and re-education centers],” said Tara Sepehri Far, a senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “That is how present they are.”

The morality police are a law enforcement force with access to power, arms and detention centers, she said. They also have control over the recently introduced “re-education centers.”

The centers act like detention facilities, where women – and sometimes men – are taken into custody for failing to comply with the state’s rules on modesty. Inside the facilities, detainees are given classes about Islam and the importance of the hijab (or headscarf), and then forced to sign a pledge to abide by the state’s clothing regulations before they are released.

The first of these establishments opened in 2019, said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, adding that “since their creation, which has no basis in any law, agents of these centers have arbitrarily detained countless women under the pretense of not complying with the state’s forced hijab.”

“The women are then treated like criminal[s], booked for their offense, photographed and forced to take a class about how to wear a proper hijab and Islamic morality,” he added.

Iran had been dictating to women how they should dress long before the establishment of the current Islamic Republic. In 1936, the pro-Western ruler Reza Shah banned the wearing of allveils and headscarves in an effort to modernize the country. Many women resisted. Then, the Islamic regime that overthrew the Shah’s Pahlavi dynasty made the hjiab compulsory in 1979, but the rule was only written into law in 1983.

A task force with all the powers of a law enforcement agency, the morality police are tasked with ensuring that the rules are followed.

A number of anti-hijab movements emerge every few years in Iran, often leading to waves of arrests and persecution. These include the “Girls of Revolution Street” in 2017 , as well as this year’s brief social media protests on the country’s National Hijab and Chastity Day, which is observed annually on July 12 to promote veiling.

But disagreements have emerged on the issue of the compulsory hijab, both among citizens and within the leadership.

A survey by a parliament-linked research center in 2018 showed that there has been a decrease in the number of people who believe that the government should enforce the headscarf. And a 2014 report by the Iranian Students’ News Agency showed a 15% rise in those believing that hijab should not be compulsory.

There has also been a rhetorical shift among the country’s leadership, calling for “education” and “correction” as opposed to forceful implementation of Islamic values, says the researcher, Sepehri Far.

Some say that Iran is slowly nearing a tipping point as the government faces mounting discontent over a crippled economy and skyrocketing inflation caused by US sanctions.

Amini’s death seems to be uniting Iranians of different mindsets, says Sepehri Far, adding that criticism over the incident is coming not just from regime opponents, but also from citizens with no previous history of dissidence, as well as those who are close to power.

Thousands across Iran took to the streets Tuesday night, according to witnesses and social media footage.

Videos on social media showed a woman cutting her hair in protest, as the crowd chants “death to the dictator” in Kerman province in southeast Iran. In other parts of the country, demonstrators chanted “We are the children of war, come on and fight, we’ll fight back,” and “death to Khamenei.”

“This time protesters aren’t only calling for justice for Mahsa Amini,” said Ghaemi. “They’re also calling for women’s rights, for their civil and human rights, for a life without a religious dictatorship.”

While there is a sense that the regime may feel vulnerable, some question whether the current movement will expand or simply weaken in the face of a state crackdown.

“Not only are these protests brutally cracked down [on] and contained each time, but there is no leadership,” said Tara Kangarlou, author of “The Heartbeat of Iran,” who grew up under the gaze of the morality police.

“Growing up as a teenager, we would make sure we avoid[ed] streets that we knew the morality police vans would be parked [on] during the weekend,” said Kangarlou.

She says young Iranians have evolved within the “oppressive system” in order to live their lives, but the “average Iranian is fed up.”

The digest

Tunisia’s anti-terrorism police arrest former leader

Tunisia’s anti-terrorism police detained for one day Ali Laarayedh, a former prime minister and senior official in the opposition Ennahda party, after an investigation into allegations jihadists were sent to Syria, Reuters cited lawyers as saying on Tuesday. In the same case, police also temporarily postponed a hearing for Tunisia’s opposition leader and speaker of the dissolved parliament, Rached Ghannouchi.

  • Background: Last month, several former security officials and two Ennahda members were arrested on charges connected to Tunisians traveling abroad for jihad. Security and official sources estimated that around 6,000 Tunisians traveled to Syria and Iraq over the last decade to join jihadist groups including ISIS. Many were killed there while others escaped and returned to Tunisia.
  • Why it matters: Ennahda denies accusations of terrorism, calling the allegations a political attack on a foe of President Kais Saied. Ghannouchi, 81, has accused Saied of an anti-democratic coup since he seized most powers last summer, shutting down the parliament and moving to rule by decree, powers he has largely formalized with a new constitution ratified in a July referendum.

Saudi Arabia buys pair of SpaceX astronaut seats

Saudi Arabia plans to launch two astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a space capsule from Elon Musk’s SpaceX ship, according to a Reuters report.

  • Background: People familiar with the arrangement told Reuters that the deal was privately signed earlier this year with Houston’s Axiom Space, which arranges private missions to US spacecraft for researchers and tourists. The Saudi astronauts will ride SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to the space station for a roughly weeklong stay early next year.
  • Why it matters: The Saudi astronauts will be the first of their country to travel into space on a private spacecraft. Saudi Arabia will also become the latest Gulf nation to forge ties with private US space companies, which are growing key players in diplomacy in a field long dominated by government agencies such as NASA.

Turkish, Israeli leaders hold first face-to-face meeting in 15 years

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, said Lapid’s office. The meeting was the first face-to-face talks between the top leaders of the two countries since 2008.

  • Background: “Yesterday, I had a productive meeting with @RTEdogan,” tweeted Lapid, “the first between the President of Türkiye and Israel’s Prime Minster in nearly 15 years.” Lapid added that relations between the two countries are “key for regional stability,” as well as bringing “tangible benefits for both our countries.”
  • Why it matters: Relations between Israel and Turkey had been fraught for many years, mainly over the Palestinian cause. But ties have warmed of late, and in August the countries said they would restore full diplomatic links and reappoint their ambassadors.

Egypt: #Salah

Egyptian football star Mo Salah’s tribute to Queen Elizabeth has caused a heated debate among his compatriots on social media.

The Liverpool player tweeted a picture of the monarch on Monday with a message to mark her passing: “My thoughts are with the Royal Family on this historic and emotional day.” Some of his Egyptian fans weren’t as enthusiastic, criticizing his condolences to the monarch of a country with a controversial colonial past.

Several users replied with photos from the 1956 Suez crisis, which took place four years after the Queen took the throne and saw a joint Israeli-British-French invade Egypt to retake the Suez Canal after it was nationalized. Another user called on Salah to read up on the Queen’s history in the Arab world. “Brother do u know what this woman’s empire did to our country or shall I inform u,” tweeted another.

Other users, however, jumped to Salah’s defense, saying the blowback was not justified. Egyptian sports journalist Omar Elbanouby tweeted: “Hands off Mohammed Salah… he is a professional footballer.. not a political activist.”

Sudanese writer Mohammed Abo Zaco called out some of Salah’s critics for hypocrisy, pointing out that it was seemingly OK for Arabs to support British football clubs and drive British cars, but not to pay respects to the Queen, who was laid to rest on Monday.

European football clubs are immensely popular in the Arab world, with some being owned by regional governments, including Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. Salah lives in the United Kingdom.

By Mohammed Abdelbary

Tweet of the day

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk said he plans to bring satellite internet services to Iran, where online access is severely restricted by the government. Musk tweeted that his company Starlink will apply for sanctions waivers to provide Iranians with internet services. US sanctions restrict companies from doing business in Iran. Western social media sites are blocked in Iran and the government regularly restricts access to the internet to prevent political mobilization.