Women in Iran cut their hair in public in a brave defiance of the country’s strict morality laws, risking imprisonment for doing so.

Across the country, protesters are taking to the streets and challenging 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 can happen to the protesters? Sky News examines the current situation.

Who was Mahsa Amini?

Mahsa Amini. Photo: 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 arrested by the country’s vice squad on September 13 for allegedly breaking its strictly enforced dress code.

Vice police said she was wearing her headscarf – or hijab – too loosely.

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

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

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

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“They shoot people” in Iran

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

His death caused public outcry inside and outside Iran and was condemned by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

FILE - Exiled Iranians from the National Council of Resistance of Iran gather outside the Iranian embassy in Berlin, Germany, September 20, 2022 following the death of an Iranian woman in the custody of the country's vice police.  The US government has imposed sanctions on Iran's morality police after the death in custody of a woman accused of wearing her Islamic headgear too loosely.  (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File)
Iranians in exile gather outside the Iranian Embassy in Berlin. Photo: AP

Who are the morality police?

Large swathes of Iranian society are covered by strict moral laws, stipulating what people can do, say and wear – and what they cannot.

The morality police – known as the Guidance Patrol – routinely detain women who they believe are not wearing a hijab or wearing it incorrectly.

They were created in 2005 by the Iranian judiciary and police to enforce the strict dress code, as authorities sought to cope with a rapidly changing society.

The force is stationed in public areas and made up of both men and women.

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

However, although Mr. Rouhani has changed several police commanders, the Orientation Patrol remains strong a year after his departure.

Demonstrators chant slogans during a demonstration against the death of a woman in the custody of vice police, in downtown Tehran, Iran PIC: AP
Protesters in downtown Tehran, the Iranian capital. Photo: AP

How big are the protests in Iran right now?

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

Many Iranians, especially young people, have come to view her death as part of the Islamic Republic’s brutal crackdown on dissent and the increasingly violent treatment of young women by the morality police.

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

The protests are the most serious in the repressive country since 2019, when demonstrations erupted against a government hike in petrol prices.

According to Human Rights Watch, Iranian courts have handed down or upheld at least four execution sentences in connection with the protests.

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Women burned headscarves and cut their hair during protests

Why do women cut their hair?

Women have played a prominent role in recent protests, waving and burning their veils, some publicly cutting their hair in a direct challenge to religious leaders.

A wave of women around the world uploaded videos to social media cutting their hair in solidarity with Iranian women and protests were held in several countries.

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