Iran arrests 29 linked to protests against compulsory hijab

Pedestrians on the streets of Teheran, Iran, on Feb 8, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

TEHERAN (NYTIMES) - Twenty-nine people, most of them women, have been arrested in connection with recent protests in Iran against the compulsory Islamic veil for women.

Announcing this on Friday (Feb 2), police in Teheran also said that the protesters had been "deceived" by foreign forces.

Six other activists were arrested in raids around the country on Thursday, accused of involvement in the large, anti-government protests that erupted in 80 cities, over an array of grievances, and gripped the country for more than a week in December and January.

Security forces suppressed those protests and 25 people were killed, but sporadic demonstrations continue to crop up around Iran.

Hard-line officials have said the protesters are responsible for those deaths, and the government has said some of the dead committed suicide, a claim that has been angrily rejected by government critics.

One of the hard-liners, Mr Ahmad Khatami, the leader of Friday prayers, said protesters who kill are "unlawful and the verdict for that is the death penalty," state news media reported - a hint that the government response to unrest could turn harsher.

Mr Khatami also said that Iran would never stop producing missiles, which the United States contends is a violation of a UN Security Council resolution. "We will produce as many missiles as we wish," he told hundreds of worshippers.

Protests against the requirement that women cover their hair with the Islamic veil, or hijab, picked up pace this week in Teheran and other cities. Witness accounts and social media videos indicate that more than two dozen women have doffed their scarves in public and waved them on sticks, like flags.

An Iranian activist based in the United States, Mr Masih Alinejad, who has a show on Voice of America's Persian-language satellite channel, has called on women in Iran to observe "White Wednesdays," wearing white and removing their veils and waving them overhead on sticks to protest the compulsory hijab and other religious restrictions imposed on women.

The Trump administration, which has condemned Iran over a range of issues including its suppression of dissent, commended the anti-hijab demonstrators Friday. "People should be free to choose the clothes they wear, and practice their faith as they desire," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Citing the Teheran police, the hard-line Tasnim news agency said on Friday that in recent days, "29 people who were deceived by the propaganda of a campaign named White Wednesdays to remove their hijab were arrested by police."

But discontent in Iran goes far behind the veil, fueled by a broader range of Islamic lifestyle laws that many people consider outdated, as well as the stagnant economy and blatant corruption.

Some of the recent demonstrations were aimed at President Hassan Rouhani, who easily won re-election last year on a promise to revitalise the economy. And in an extraordinary show of dissent, other demonstrators called for the ouster of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denouncing him as a dictator.

The demonstrations illuminated the struggle between moderates like Rouhani, and conservative religious leaders, who were accused of igniting the initial protests as a way to embarrass Rouhani. For his part, Mr Rouhani insisted that the demonstrators had both a right to speak out and justifications for discontent, and in a swipe at the hard-liners, said, "One cannot force one's lifestyle on the future generations."

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