What’s Driving the Protests in Iran?

Dozens of cities have been embroiled in protests that were prompted by a young woman’s death in custody but that have escalated amid anger over religious rules and a rock-bottom economy.

Antigovernment demonstrations in Iran are spreading after Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the morality police. Videos shared on social media show Iranians protesting in the face of crackdowns by the authorities. [Agence France-Presse | Getty Images]

The antigovernment protests that have erupted in cities across Iran in response to a young woman’s death in the custody of the country’s morality police have struck a national nerve.

The demonstrations have spread to dozens of cities, and multiple casualties have been reported. The government said on Thursday that 17 people, including two security officers, had been killed since the unrest began last weekend. Rights groups say the toll is likely to be higher.

The protests have included large numbers of women, who initially took to the streets in rare displays of defiance of the government and its enforcement of the country’s hijab law, which mandates covered hair and loosefitting clothing for women.

The demonstrations have become widespread, with demands broadening to reflect ordinary Iranians’ anger over their living conditions after years of U.S.-led sanctions that have hobbled the economy, as well as widespread corruption and economic mismanagement.

With extraordinary scenes of dissent and calls to end the Islamic Republic, the protests have become one of the most visible challenges to the government since the last wave of unrest in 2019, which was met with a deadly response.

The authorities have struck back again with a brutal and systematic crackdown: Security forces have fired on protesters with gunshots and water cannons and beat them with batons. Cellphone and internet usage has been drastically restricted.

What’s fueling the protests? And what are the implications for the authorities?

A young woman’s death ignited long-simmering anger.

Mahsa Amini, who also went by the name Jina, was with her family last week on a visit to Tehran from her home in the northwestern province of Kurdistan when she was arrested on an accusation of violating the hijab law.

The law went into effect in 1981, after the Islamic revolution. It has long been challenged by many women in Iran and is commonly flouted across the country.