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Protests in Iran over Mahsa Amini's death grow as does the violent response

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What is happening in Iran right now is historic - 40 days of public demonstrations, women marching in the streets without their headscarves demanding a change to the regime's repressive rules.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The demonstrations started after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody. Morality police, you may recall, accused her of dressing inappropriately somehow. But the protests have spread beyond women's rights, with social media posts showing people chanting things like Death to the Dictator, a line directed at the cleric who holds ultimate power.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following all this from the beginning and joins us this morning from Istanbul.

Hey, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: It's hard to get verifiable reporting from on the ground in Iran, but do you get the sense that the protests are growing?

KENYON: Well, there's certainly no sign of them dying down or being quelled by the security forces. Their efforts to suppress the unrest are increasing, although we haven't seen the type of all-out reaction that some hard-liners are demanding. The protesters, meanwhile, are finding more symbols to rally around as more people are killed in the anti-government demonstrations.

One is 17-year-old Nika Shakarami, who was killed during a street protest in Tehran. Videos posted online showed riot police opening fire on mourners at the cemetery where she's buried. Shakarami's mother began reading a eulogy for her daughter but was interrupted. Here's a bit of what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NASRIN SHAKARAMI: (Speaking Persian).

KENYON: Now, she's saying, quote, "my dear child, during your short lifetime of 17 years, I watched you growing up. You grew up so fast, and you witnessed quite a lot." And then mourners started to chant, quote, "Khamenei is a killer. His leadership is annulled." That's a reference to Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, whose leadership continues to be challenged in protests across Iran.

MARTIN: I understand the regime has also tried to organize counterdemonstrations. Is that working?

KENYON: Well, they have organized some counterdemonstrations, yes. And they have produced large crowds in some cases, although there also have been reports of people saying they felt compelled to go. They worried about things like repercussions at work if they didn't show up.

MARTIN: So as Steve noted, I mean, this all started after Mahsa Amini was detained and then died in police custody. And it was this rallying cry for women to be able to take off their hijab, to demand better human rights. But it has expanded. I mean, now there are all these calls for the end of the regime. Has this become existential for Iran's leaders?

KENYON: It is a very serious challenge to a government that many analysts have said has one overarching priority, and that's to stay in power. Much of Iran's wealth has for decades been channeled into the country's intelligence apparatus, its military, various security forces, including the morality police. They're the ones who arrested Mahsa Amini for wearing her hijab, by the way, in exactly the same way thousands of women in Tehran do every day, with more hair showing than strict Islamic dress codes for women permit.

MARTIN: So what about the international community's response, Peter? I mean, what are Iranians saying about that?

KENYON: Well, as has happened in past uprisings, there's a feeling of dismay about what's seen as a completely inadequate response. More sanctions have been imposed, but Iran's hard-liners point out their country's carried on under sanctions for decades and can continue to do so. So not for the first time, Iranian protesters out on the streets say they feel largely abandoned by the West.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon, we appreciate your reporting.

Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.