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The death of a young Iranian woman in police custody continues to reverberate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, we have a little more of the story of a woman who died in police custody in Iran, triggering weeks of protest. Mahsa Amini was 22 years old. She was a member of Iran's Kurdish minority, a group that has faced discrimination for a long time. Family and friends knew her by her Kurdish name, Gina. Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Despite the internet crackdown imposed by the government in Tehran, some videos are still being posted showing demonstrators, often led by women, defying the security forces to protest Mahsa Amini's death. Her family rejects the official explanation that she fainted and died of natural causes, saying she was beaten. The drama has captivated Iranians at home and abroad. Soma (ph), a Kurdish activist who left Iran for Europe several years ago out of fear she would be arrested if she stayed, asked that her family name not be used still for fear of repercussions from the government. She says, for as long as she can remember, Iranians from different ethnic groups - Persians, Azerbaijanis and others - have struggled to work together, especially with the Kurds.

SOMA: It's the first time we have all the country, different ethnicities, the different nations gathering and chanting for the same aim, for the same demands, political demands. It's the first time.

KENYON: Soma also says these demonstrations are notable in another way. They move beyond purely political demands to call for something that might seem ordinary to outsiders, not just a normal life, but a joyful life.

SOMA: Yes, exactly, because, you know, one of the things is really being oppressed and banned by the government is the right to have a joyful life. A right to life, but especially to have a joyful life, because the sad life is completely recognized by the government. But the joyful life is completely banned.

KENYON: Vera Eccarius-Kelly, a professor of international relations at Siena College in New York, says the unrest in Kurdish provinces reflects what she calls the growing feeling among Iranians that the regime is, quote, "profoundly illegitimate."

VERA ECCARIUS-KELLY: It is losing public support and control. I am deeply impressed by the courage of so many protesters throughout Iran, but in particular in the Kurdish provinces, where women are taking off the hijab in the street and protesting. They're burning hijab publicly. They're cutting their hair publicly.

KENYON: Eccarius-Kelly says Kurds have long faced discrimination. They're Iran's third largest ethnic group, comprising roughly 10% of the population. Beyond that, she says, the fact that they are not majority Shia Muslims, like Iran's ruling class, has made them a target for suspicion and repression.

ECCARIUS-KELLY: So they are profoundly discriminated against because - not only because they're Kurdish, but because the Iranian regime is afraid of the size of this minority.

KENYON: She says Mahsa Amini, like many Iranian Kurds, wasn't even allowed to officially use her Kurdish name, Gina, instead having to use the name accepted by the Iranian state. She has little doubt these protests will continue because what Mahsa Amini did was no different from what huge numbers of Iranian women do every day, commit a small act of protest by showing a bit more hair under their hijab.

ECCARIUS-KELLY: That's why a lot of women and young people in Iran in general are saying, well, you know, it could have been me. And it could have been me means we need to push back because it will be me if we don't resist now.

KENYON: Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has now weighed in on the protests, condemning them as plots engineered by the U.S. and Israel. Iran's Kurdish minority, along with much of the country, is watching to see what that may mean for the official response to this uprising.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-SIDE'S "JUST DON'T CARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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