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Who was Mahsa Amini and why are women cutting their hair?

Women in Iran are cutting their hair in public in a brave challenge to the country’s strict morality laws, risking imprisonment in doing so. 

Across the country protesters are taking to the streets and calling out authorities over the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody.

What is happening in Iran, who are the morality police and what could happen to demonstrators? Sky News takes a look at the ongoing situation.

Who was Mahsa Amini?

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Mahsa Amini. Pic: Center for Human Rights in Iran

The latest unrest in Iran was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was detained by the country’s morality police on 13 September for allegedly violating its strictly enforced dress code.

The morality police said she wore her headscarf – or hijab – too loosely.

Iran requires women to wear the hijab so that it covers their hair completely.

Miss Amini collapsed at a police station and died three days later.

Iranian police say she died of a heart attack and was not mistreated, but her family have cast doubt on that account.

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‘They are shooting people’ in Iran

Independent experts affiliated with the United Nations (UN) say that reports suggested she was severely beaten by the morality police, without offering evidence.

Her death has led to public outcry both inside and outside Iran and has been condemned by the United States, the European Union and the UN.

FILE - Exile Iranians of the National Council of Resistance of Iran gather in front of the embassy of Iran in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 20, 2022 after the death of an Iranian woman held by the country's morality police. The U.S. government has imposed sanctions on Iran...s morality police after the death in custody of a woman who'd been accused of wearing her Islamic headgear too loosely.  (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File)
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Exile Iranians gather in front of the Iranian embassy in Berlin. Pic: AP

Who are the morality police?

Huge swathes of Iranian society are covered by strict morality laws, stipulating what people can do, say and wearn – and what they can’t.

The morality police – known as the Guidance Patrol – routinely detain women who they say are not wearing hijabs, or are wearing them incorrectly.

They were established in 2005 by Iran’s judiciary and police to enforce the strict dress code, as authorities sought to grapple with a quickly changing society.

The force is stationed across public areas and made up of men as well as women.

President Hassan Rouhani – considered to be a moderate politician – had pledged to remove the morality police from the streets during his election campaign.

However despite Mr Rouhani changing several police commanders the Guidance Patrol remains powerful a year after he left office.

Protesters chant slogans during a protest over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran
PIC:AP
Image:
Protesters in downtown Tehran, the Iranian capital. Pic: AP

How big are the protests in Iran at the moment?

Miss Amini’s death has prompted Iranians to take to the streets of Tehran and at least 12 other cities in the country.

Many Iranians, particularly the young, have come to see her death as part of the Islamic Republic’s heavy-handed policing of dissent and the morality police’s increasingly violent treatment of young women.

As of Friday 23 September, 26 people had died in protests.

The protests are the most serious in the repressive country since 2019, when demonstrations erupted over a government hike in the price of gasoline.

According to the Human Rights Watch organisation, Iranian courts have reportedly issued or upheld at least four execution sentences in connection to protests.

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Women burned headscarves and cut their hair in protests

Why are women cutting their hair?

Women have played a prominent role in the recent demonstrations, waving and burning their veils, with some publicly cutting their hair in a direct challenge to clerical leaders.

A wave of women worldwide have uploaded videos to social media, cutting off their hair in solidarity with Iranian women and protests have been taking place in several countries.

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