Iranians protest over acid attacks on women

Tehran (AFP) - Around 1,000 people took to the streets in Iran on Wednesday to demand action after four women were maimed in acid attacks reportedly linked to them not wearing the veil.

The demonstration took place in Isfahan -- the country's top tourist destination, 450 kilometres (280 miles) south of Tehran -- where the victims were injured in the past week by assailants on motorcycles, prompting shock across the country.

"Isfahan is our city, security is our right," the crowd chanted outside Isfahan's judiciary building, waving banners and placards, according to the official IRNA news agency.

Under Islamic law in force in Iran since the 1979 revolution, women must wear loose clothing, known as hijab, that covers the head and neck and which conceals their hair.

But many women now wear a headscarf and thin coat rather than the chador, a traditional black garment that covers the body from head to toe. Morality police with the power of arrest patrol public areas and decide if women are observing the law.

Reports on social networks and local media have said the victims in Isfahan may have been targeted because they were "badly veiled." Female drivers in the city have been urged to keep their car windows closed.

In what is an emotive issue in the Islamic republic, MPs have written to President Hassan Rouhani in recent months to demand police do more to ensure that the law on hijab is enforced.

But speaking on Wednesday, Rouhani urged citizens to consider the issue carefully and not be zealous.

"We should not be overly focused on one issue, such as bad hijab, to prevent vice," he said, alluding to the Islamic duty to promote virtue.

The Isfahan protest prompted a frenzy of online activity. One video uploaded on Facebook heard demonstrators chanting: "Down with the religious extremists."

The protest came as Iran's health minister Hassan Hashemi visited one victim at a city hospital. The woman, covered in bandages, gave a harrowing account of how she has lost sight in her right eye.

"I was a student, I am educated, I was behind the wheel of my car and then the attacker took my life away from me," the victim, named as Soheila Jorkesh, was quoted as saying by IRNA.

"Nobody knew how to help me at the time. It took 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive," she said.

"I am the only daughter of this family. My left eye still has sight. Please help me so that I can see," she told the minister, an ophthalmologist, pleading for an operation.

A much smaller demonstration, numbering about 50 people, outside Iran's parliament hours earlier on Wednesday demanded an end to violence against women.

Acid attacks have risen in recent years in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, with the abusers claiming they punished women for "sullying" their family "honour" by committing "indecent" behaviour.

But the incidents in Isfahan are the first to be prominently reported in Iran in several years.