The Fraying Chains

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Almost a year ago, a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police. Her offense was refusing to wear her hijab – a headscarf – contrary to the Islamic Republic’s harsh laws.

Amini’s death triggered “a tsunami of unrest” called the Hijab Protest, which surged throughout Iran. As the Jewish News Syndicate explained, Iranian officials cracked down on the protests, using live ammunition to disperse demonstrators.

The furor led Iran’s theocrats to say they disbanded the morality police in December last year, the New York Times reported, a sign of how the country’s government at least partially responds to expressions of popular will.

Now they are back, stronger than ever, as is the crackdown on the protests which died down but never completely went away.

For example, last week, Iran detained at least 12 female activists in what rights groups say is an escalating campaign to deter protests to mark the anniversary of the “woman, life, freedom” uprising, the Washington Post reported.

This spring, the authorities began prosecuting two journalists for reporting on Amini’s death, accused of inciting the protests and “colluding with hostile powers” – the later charge could carry the death penalty. Still, the pair are just two of the more than 20,000 that have been jailed over the protests in the past year, including soccer stars, actors, and other celebrities.

More than 500 people have died in the demonstrations and at least seven have been executed, with more than 100 still on death row.

University campuses, the center of the protest movement, now resemble jails, policed by security guards and cameras. Students have been continually questioned and harassed by authorities, with that increasing lately.

The government also recently drafted a new rule to make sure that its citizens adopt conservative Islamic dress codes. The police are empowered to walk the streets and use surveillance cameras to order people to correct their clothing to conform to the law.

“I am telling you that the removal of the hijab will definitely come to an end, do not worry,” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said recently, alleging that “foreigners” had trained “ignorant” women to reject the hijab requirement.

The proposed Hijab and Chastity Bill would send immodestly dressed men and women to prison for as many as 10 years in addition to imposing $750 fines, GZERO wrote. It would increase gender segregation in public places. Most conspicuously, under the law, celebrities who publicly express support for Amini-related protests would need to pay 10 percent of their wealth as a fine, as well as temporarily suspend their professional activities.

Authorities recently banned a film festival after organizers released an advertisement that featured a female actor without her hijab, Agence France-Prese added.

In a sign of the proposal’s controversy, Iranian lawmakers are reviewing the legislation in secret, the BBC reported.

Though it has yet to be approved, the draft bill is already causing economic damage in a country reeling from years of tough international sanctions.

Restaurant owners, for example, complained that the morality police were already levying fines as large as $70,000 if patrons were improperly wearing hijabs, a potential act of resistance. “The first time, it was two young women sitting at the window table without headscarves,” a Tehran restaurant owner Hesam told Nikkei Asia. “We received the notice, and soon we were shut down.”

The intensifying crackdown is because the government fears a renewal of protests, analysts say. Since the protests ignited, Iran’s clerical leaders have struggled to reassert control and enforce hijab rules, as well as regain legitimacy, amid ongoing frustration with the collapsing economy, global isolation, and water shortages during a summer heat wave.

“The regime is definitely frightened of the anniversary coming up,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, told the Post. “It believes there is a large appetite in the country for protests and resistance again. Otherwise, it would not be rounding people up.”

That’s because Iranians are still defiant. “Be off or I’ll take off my trousers, too,” an elderly woman was recently heard shouting at police who demanded she put on a headscarf in a women-only carriage on Tehran’s metro, the Economist reported.

As some observers say, with withering legitimacy, the government should be afraid. Because as the Economist notes, Iranians are still seething.

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