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Why authorities can't quell the protests in Iran


A protest that began over women's headscarves in Iran represents something more. Iranian authorities have tried for days to stop demonstrations after a woman died in police custody. Instead, the protests have grown. And we have a perspective today on why that would be. We called Nahid Siamdoust. She's a former journalist who covered Iran and now teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, which means she can speak more freely than many in Iran can. She has followed the story of Mahsa Amini, a woman who traveled to the capital city, Tehran.

NAHID SIAMDOUST: She was coming off the subway with her brother and was arrested by the morality police, taken into a van and taken to a detention center.

INSKEEP: She never came out of that center alive. The government has said little about the case, except that she collapsed. The United States has said more. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced sanctions against the morality police.

SIAMDOUST: So the morality police are these committees in vans that are sent around Tehran and other cities to apprehend women who are in their view and the view of the government, not well-dressed. They don't have the proper hijab. Their hair isn't properly covered. Of course, if you look at the images of Mahsa Amini - and this is a debate that has happened since her killing - we see that she actually was wearing a very long coat and that had a - you know, everything black, had a pretty proper headscarf. So what proper hijab is very much depends on the sitting government.

INSKEEP: And in Iran, the sitting government has changed. Though clerics hold ultimate power, they allow carefully managed elections. President Ebrahim Raisi won the most recent vote. He's a longtime official, accused by the U.S. of past human rights abuses. And he's far more conservative than his predecessor.


ABDULLA SHAHID: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: This week, Raisi spoke at the United Nations in New York, stepping to the lectern in black robes.


PRESIDENT EBRAHIM RAISI: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: And after wishing peace on the assembly in the name of God, he accused other countries of abusing human rights. He said Western nations apply a double standard to Iran. He did not detail what's happening back home. Nahid Siamdoust says his government has intensified efforts at social control.

SIAMDOUST: And in recent weeks, Raisi's government has had a campaign of trying to sort of tighten the screws on women's clothing in the public sphere, not least because over the last few years, Iranian women have started very slowly a bottom-up street campaign of just almost doing away with headscarves in some situations, in some locations in the city. So, you know, if you look at the last 40 years of Iranian sort of women's dress, you could almost kind of diagram from going, about in the '80s, long, dark clothes to gradually becoming shorter, tighter and more colorful.

INSKEEP: The government's effort to stop those trends is the backdrop of Mahsa Amini's death. And that wider story helps to explain why the protests spread so far.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

SIAMDOUST: The first protests really happened around the hospital where she died, where Mahsa Amini passed away. And very soon, really, protests started happening in Kurdistan, sort of the province where she's from, and other cities started expressing solidarity. People came into the streets and called her name, shouting slogans such as, I will kill the person who killed my sister, claiming her not as just any woman, but as somebody who could have been anyone's sister or daughter or niece or mother. She really came to represent this woman that any Iranian could relate to. And also, the kinds of display that we see of women burning their headscarves - there's something almost sort of, you know, I wouldn't say joyous, but there's definitely something very defiant about the protests that we see.

INSKEEP: Why now, do you think?

SIAMDOUST: I think people are just fed up. The world has changed. Iran has changed. Iranians for the last decade have been very active on social media. Women have been asking for greater freedoms and greater rights, and the government hasn't really been listening. In fact, they've done the opposite. They've sort of securitized public spaces more and tried to clamp down even more severely on certain kinds of expressions of freedom. And, I think, coming on the heels of severe U.S. sanctions, where people have been really struggling economically, you know, on the heels of a pandemic that has affected everybody across the world, I think people are just fed up, and they just don't want to take it anymore.

INSKEEP: It sounds like this is about a lot more than headscarves.

SIAMDOUST: For sure. I mean, I think that in part because the government itself held on to the issue of the headscarf to the extent that it became a sort of central or core issue of identity for the Islamic republic. You know, the supreme leader of the country did have a speech where he said, you know, in the private space, women can do whatever they want. But we just say, in the public spaces, the hijab needs to be worn in a certain way that promotes public morality, right? And so they held on to the issue of the hijab as something that really defines the identity of the Islamic republic. And I think it's because of that that Mahsa Amini's killing could become a sort of lightning rod for attacking some of the core tenets of the state, as opposed to just be about the hijab.

INSKEEP: Nahid Siamdoust. Thanks so much.

SIAMDOUST: Thank you very much for having me.

INSKEEP: She's a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

INSKEEP: Now, while in New York this week, Iran's president, Ebrahim Raisi, had a scheduled interview. He was expected to talk with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. But she says the interview never happened after Amanpour declined a request to wear a headscarf. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.