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Protests erupt after the death of a young woman arrested by Iran's 'morality police'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For several days now, protests have spread in Iran. Police have violently broken up some of them. Here's the message they were sending in one city as posted on an activist Twitter account.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

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

SHAPIRO: They're shouting, death to the dictator. This started after a young woman died in the custody of the so-called morality police. She's become a symbol for opposition to the requirement that women wear headscarves. NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering events in Iran from his base in Istanbul. Hey, there.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So what's been going on over there? How widespread are protests? How violent have police been in responding to them?

KENYON: The protests have been active in the capital, Tehran, and up in the northwest Kurdish part of the country, where Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old who died, is from. There have been protests elsewhere, including some by Iranians here in Istanbul. There are reports from Iran of tear gas being used as well as possibly some live fire, at least three deaths and multiple injuries reported in the initial police crackdown. It's been a bit hard to know exactly what's going on since then, but one rights group does claim more than 250 had been arrested as of Monday.

SHAPIRO: And tell us more about the death of the young woman that led to these protests.

KENYON: Well, Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran's morality police last week for unsuitable attire. The problem was, apparently, the Islamic hair covering for women, which the government requires. While in custody, she fell into a coma and died. Family members charged Amini was beaten in the police van after her arrest. And then the protests began.

The response by the morality police is being seen by many as extreme. One government official appeared to try to suggest that terrorists might have been the cause, while an aide to Iran's supreme leader reportedly paid a visit to Amini's family and told them the government is following the case and will take steps, quote, "to defend the rights that were violated," suggesting even the government was alarmed by these actions by the morality police.

Washington and France are demanding accountability. The United Nations is calling on Iran to allow peaceful demonstrations and to carry out an impartial investigation into the death.

SHAPIRO: You've covered previous protests over the hijab. Tell us the background here.

KENYON: Well, these hijab rules have been the target of criticism for some time. Some Iranian women and activists see this as an opportunity to push Iran's religious leadership to grant more day-to-day freedoms.

The hardline government of President Ebrahim Raisi has shown little tolerance. Raisi has the support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

But the death of this young woman has galvanized demonstrators into bolder actions. There have been videos showing women waving their headscarves, burning hijabs. Of course, some of those videos have been ongoing for months. These complaints are not exactly new.

SHAPIRO: How far are authorities likely to let this go?

KENYON: That is a big question. In the past, in situations of unrest, the Iranian government has resorted, sometimes, to harsh crackdowns with the design of chilling public interest in being out on the street and confronting security forces. But this case has clearly got people charged up. One question is whether this will stay as a hijab protest or mushroom into a larger anti-government movement.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks a lot.

KENYON: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.