The authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran are adopting an array of new laws and policies, on a daily basis, to further cement discriminatory, degrading and humiliating compulsory veiling and to subject millions of women and girls who stand up for equality and human rights to even harsher punishments. The authorities’ measures to increase the price of protesting compulsory veiling, including through depriving women and girls of their right to education, come amid a flurry of deceptive, vague and contradictory statements made in order to deflect international outcry and to present a ‘softened’ picture of their extreme forms of gender-based discrimination and violence against women.
The popular uprising sparked by the death in custody of Jhina (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of the ‘morality police’ following credible reports of torture has seen people in Iran taking to the streets to demand justice, freedom and fundamental political and social change. In response to the uprising, the authorities and security forces launched a brutal campaign of repression, unlawfully killing hundreds of women, children and men and injuring, arbitrarily arresting and torturing thousands of others. This bloody repression has been accompanied by the authorities’ campaign of deception, denial and concealment including through vague and misleading statements announcing disbanding of the country’s ‘morality police’ (gasht-e ershad).
A review of the authorities’ domestic statements and announcements, as well as their legislative and policy initiatives, shows that, contrary to their claims before the international community, state violence against women and girls, including measures aimed at enforcing discriminatory, humiliating and degrading compulsory veiling, have multiplied over the past several months. These measures have included official announcements by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Science and Technologies, respectively overseeing schools and higher education institutions, blatantly stating that universities and schools, including primary schools, will deprive women and girls who do not abide by discriminatory forced veiling of their right to education.
The authorities have also introduced draft legislation that aims to: increase the scope and severity of punishments imposed on women who do not comply with compulsory veiling; deprive them of a range of rights and basic services such as access to banking services, a driver’s licence, mobile SIM cards and internet; and transform non-state actors, such as business owners and managers, into vigilantes for enforcing compulsory veiling by imposing punishments on them in cases where their staff or customers do not adhere to compulsory veiling.
‘Demands for equality and respect for the human rights of women and girls have been at the heart of a popular uprising in Iran that seeks fundamental political and social change in the country. Not only have the authorities of the Islamic Republic not retreated even an inch in the face of protests, they have increased their discriminatory and violent policies against women and girls. It is beyond outrageous that the authorities plan to deprive millions of girls and women of access to schools and universities and the right to education in a bid to subdue their spirit of resistance and freedom-seeking,’ said Saloua Ghazouani, ARTICLE 19’s Director for Middle East and North Africa.
ARTICLE 19 highlights that over the past months, and as part of their broader ruthless assault on human rights and in a bid to enforce compulsory veiling, the authorities have arrested, detained and prosecuted women and girls; instructed courts to hand down harsher punishments on them; barred women not complying with forced veiling from accessing public transport; shut down businesses such as hotels and pharmacies; and made repeated announcements about the use of technologies, including facial recognition, to identify women and girls who refuse to comply with compulsory veiling. At the same time, over a thousand girls have been deliberately poisoned at schools across the country since November 2022, sparking fears that the attacks may be an intimidation tactic and in retaliation for the girls’ courageous participation in protests against state oppression.
‘The Islamic Republic authorities aim to place women and girls under a wide-scale economic, social and cultural siege by depriving them of the most basic rights, services and necessities. The goal is to make the lives of women and girls unbearable, if not impossible, and leave them with little choice but to conform with the country’s discriminatory and degrading forced veiling laws,’ Saloua Ghazouani said.
‘The international community and media must not be deceived by the authorities of the Islamic Republic, who have waged a full-on war on the rights of women and girls. All individuals and institutions involved in violations of their rights, including through adoption and implementation of compulsory veiling laws and policies, should be placed under targeted human rights sanctions. We call on all UN member states to summon the ambassadors of the Islamic Republic and urgently demand an end to their violent and discriminatory laws and policies against women and girls, including those imposing compulsory veiling,’ Saloua Ghazouani added.
Compulsory veiling is like wearing ‘seat belts’, say Islamic Republic authorities
Since the start of the nationwide protests in mid-September 2022, and in the face of growing international scrutiny of authorities’ ruthless suppression of protests and systematic and widespread violations of human rights, including of women and girls, the authorities of the Islamic Republic have resorted to their long-standing policy of denial, concealment and deception. In communications with the international media and UN experts and bodies, the authorities have persistently denied the commission of gross violations of human rights and crimes under international law, trivialised people’s demands for fundamental change, freedom and human rights, claimed popular support for laws and policies that violate human rights, and attributed responsibility for their actions to the ‘enemy’.
For example, in March 2023, in a media interview with CNN, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated:
‘Today the outside networks are turning the issue of hijab and headscarf into a political crisis. Women in Iran, within the framework of rules and regulations, enjoy extraordinary freedoms…within the framework of the law. The issue in Iran at the moment is not about hijab.’
In a communication to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in November 2022, the Islamic Republic authorities attempted, in a convoluted and deceitful manner, to deny the compulsory nature of veiling by claiming parliament has passed laws imposing it and thus have legitimacy and popular support. The letter stated:
‘The phrase or the concept of “mandatory hijab” does not exist in the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as “coercion/compulsion” is basically inherent in all laws. What is important is the legitimacy and acceptability of the laws, which have been observed in the hijab law due to the fact that it was approved in the parliament and that the majority of Iranian people are Muslims.“Hijab” is a concept proposed in the approved law based upon the Iranian society’s cultural and religious characteristics.’
The authorities further likened compulsory veiling, which violates an array of women and girls’ rights, including their rights to freedom of expression, religion and belief, equality and to be free from torture and other ill-treatment, to wearing ‘seatbelts’ and ‘face masks’:
‘Just as the penalty for not wearing seatbelts or refusing to wear a face mask does not run counter against freedom of opinion and is necessary for the health of the society, legislation in accordance with the public will and the morality of the society is not contrary to the freedom of speech and opinion.’
The authorities have also made deceptive statements creating confusion about their enforcement of compulsory veiling. On 3 December 2022, during a press conference, Iran’s Prosecutor General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, said: ‘The “morality police” (gasht-e ershad) has nothing to do with the judiciary and it was closed by whichever [body] that established it in the past.’
The Prosecutor’s statement, which gave rise to speculations about the authorities’ retreat in the face of growing resistance, was simply deceitful as it effectively dismissed the existence of an entire, including legal and judicial, state machinery that remains in place in order to maintain the practice of compulsory veiling. The very existence of laws imposing compulsory veiling and criminalising women and girls’ refusal to abide by them enables the police and other law enforcement bodies to arbitrarily arrest and detain them and the judicial bodies to prosecute and punish them. In the face of global and domestic outrage at the authorities’ violent treatment of women, the Prosecutor General’s statement was an attempt to absolve the country’s judicial authorities, including prosecution officials and judges, who have been violating women and girls’ rights for decades, from responsibility.
ARTICLE 19 emphasises that not only did the state media outlets report the next day that ‘no official authority in the Islamic Republic of Iran has confirmed the closure of the morality police’, the Prosecutor General’s statement was followed by a range of official statements threatening even a harsher crackdown on those protesting compulsory veiling as well as announcements about new policies and legislative initiatives aimed at coercing women into compliance. These measures clearly demonstrate that the authorities of the Islamic Republic are adamant to maintain and enforce discriminatory, degrading and humiliating compulsory veiling laws.
Continued crackdown on protests against compulsory veiling
Since September 2022, the authorities of the Islamic Republic, including the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, the President, Ebrahim Raisi, the Head of the Judiciary, Gholamhossein Ejei, and parliamentarians have repeatedly emphasised the irrevocable nature of compulsory veiling laws and promised a harsh crackdown on those who exercise their human rights and protest the discriminatory practice, including through appearing in public without a veil.
For example, on 10 January 2023, Abdolsamad Khorram Abadi, the Prosecutor General’s Deputy for supervising the offices of the prosecutors and law enforcement, stated that the Office of the Prosecutor General had issued a decree to the country’s police forces ordering them to ‘firmly confront kashf-e hijab (removal of the veil by women and girls)’. Khorram Abadi further stated:
‘The punishment for the crime of encouraging and inciting others to remove their veil is a lot harsher than removing the veil itself because encouraging and inciting [others] to unveil is a manifest example of incitement to corruption, which, under Article 639(b) of the Islamic Penal Code, is punishable by an imprisonment punishment of between 1 and 10 years. Therefore, courts have an obligation to convict and sentence anyone who incites others to unveil in any manner to the aforesaid punishment.’
On 6 March 2023, Gholamhossein Ejei, the Head of the Judiciary, stated that ‘unveiling’ violated public decency as well as Islamic and legal principles and was ‘supported by the enemy’. He further warned that ‘all officials are endeavouring, with support from the judiciary and the executive, to use all resources to confront individuals who, in order to assist the enemy, commit this sin, which violates public decency and order’.
Various state bodies and institutions have also made official announcements with regards to adoption of even stricter measures and new policies with the aim of coercing women and girls into compliance with compulsory veiling. On 30 March 2023, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement announcing that ‘No form of retreating or tolerance with regards to [breaches] of traditional principles, rules, and values has taken place and shall take place.’ The statement further emphasised the requirement for compliance with compulsory veiling and expressed the support of the Ministry for vigilantes, referred to as ‘those promoting virtue and preventing vice’, who continue to intimidate and harass women in public places to force them into compliance. The statement also promised that the country’s judiciary, law enforcement and other relevant bodies will take action against those ‘breaking the norms’.
The Ministry of Interior’s statement was followed by two separate statements by the Ministry of Science and Technology on 2 April, and the Ministry of Education on 3 April, announcing that universities and schools will not provide education and other services, such as accommodation, to women and girls who exercise their human rights and refuse to abide by compulsory veiling laws.
The authorities have acted on their words and have continued to persecute individuals, in particular women and girls, for protesting compulsory veiling, including through arbitrary detentions and imposition of punishments such as imprisonment and flogging, and forcing women and girls into making ‘confessions’. However, in the face of global outrage at the torture and death in custody of Jhina (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of the “morality police” and scenes of torture and other ill-treatment of women and girls by police and security forces on the streets, the authorties of the Islamic Republic appear to be considering ‘less visible’, or as they have referred to them, ‘indirect’ and ‘smart’ ways of enforcing compulsory veilings.
For instance, on 25 December 2022, an official from the Chastity and Hijab Headquarters in Southern Khorasan province stated that no institution, bank or company in the province was permitted to provide services to women who appeared in public without a veil. He further added that those in charge of such bodies, including managers, would be held responsible if the body under their supervision was caught providing services to women without a veil. Earlier in the same month, on 6 December, Hossein Jalali, a member of Parliament’s Commission on Culture, had indicated a measure for implementation of compulsory veiling whereby women would receive warnings via text messages and upon receiving three warnings, the bank account of the ‘offending’ woman would be frozen.
Moreover, prosecutorial and judicial authorities of different provinces have threatened that businesses in which compulsory veiling laws are not complied with will face consequences and that criminal cases would be opened against managers and others whose institutions are found to be in breach of veiling laws. For instance, on 5 March, Seyed Javad Ilai, the Prosecutor of Bojnourd in Northern Khorasan Province, threatened business owners with closure of their premises and revocation of their business licence if they are found to be in violation of compulsory veiling laws.
Over the past months, the authorities have forcibly shut down businesses, including hotels, entertainment facilities, pharmacies,[mfn]Also داروخانهای در تهران به خاطر «حجاب» پلمپ شد | پایگاه خبری تحلیلی انصاف نیوز[/mfn] and shops for compulsory veiling violations.
New legislative initiatives for enforcing discriminatory, humiliating and degrading compulsory veiling
The authorities of the Islamic Republic are considering multiple legislative initiatives to maintain and enforce discriminatory, humiliating and degrading compulsory veiling.
- The draft bill on Discretionary Punishments
Most prominently, a draft bill on Discretionary Punishments (which, if enacted, will replace the existing Book Five of the Islamic Penal Code) was reportedly prepared in October 2022 by the Judiciary’s Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Deputy Office and was sent to the Government for legislative processes in December 2022. The draft bill includes a wide range of provisions that contravene international law and not only continues to impose discriminatory, degrading and humiliating compulsory veiling on women and girls but seeks to expand the scope of the ‘offences’ in connection with compulsory veiling and significantly increases the stipulated punishments for such ‘offences’.
As detailed below, the draft bill effectively places women who exercise their human rights and refuse to comply with compulsory veiling under a social, economic and cultural siege by depriving them of their civil and political, as well as social, cultural, and economic, rights. It further allows for the imposition of imprisonment, flogging and other punishments against women, human rights defenders and others who protest compulsory veiling in any manner, including through acts such as appearing in public without a veil, participating in assemblies, and publishing content online. Finally, the draft bill effectively seeks to transform non-state actors including managers and business owners into enforcement agents for compulsory veiling.
Article 178 of the draft bill enables judicial bodies to take women and girls who do not adhere to compulsory veiling into custody in order to compel them to sign a written undertaking stating that they would not repeat the ‘offence’ (in cases where women and girls do not have a previous record of having breached compulsory veiling laws and are deemed by the authorities to be ‘first offenders’). Women who refuse to sign the undertaking or those who refuse to adhere to compulsory veiling after signing it are thus deemed ‘repeat offenders’ by the authorities, and will be sentenced to a ‘social punishment’, which includes (but is not limited to) monetary fines and mandatory pro-bono public service for up to 270 hours and the following deprivation and prohibitions for a period of up to one year: mandatory residence in certain location/s; deprivation from having a cheque book; expulsion from governmental or public positions; prohibition from leaving the country; mandatory training in a job, vocation, or profession; ban on participation in art festivals; prohibition from holding a driving licence; and a ban from holding certain positions and jobs. (See below for full details on ‘social punishments’ under the draft bill.)
In addition, under Article 178, the authorities can also sentence women and girls to mandatory ‘educational, religious or moral’ courses for a period of between one and two weeks.
While at a first glance, it may appear that the authorities are removing the punishments of imprisonment and flogging for women and girls who do not abide by compulsory veiling (currently stipulated under the existing Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code)[mfn]Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code, imposes an imprisonment term of 10 days to two months, or 74 lashes on anyone committing any act that is deemed ‘offensive’ to public decencies. The note to the article states that women who are seen in public without veiling are to be punished with an imprisonment term of 10 days to two months or a cash fine.[/mfn], a closer reading of other provisions in the Bill reveals that they will in fact enable the authorities to impose heavier imprisonment punishments and even flogging sentences for hijab-related ‘offences’. Article 179 of the draft Bill provides for imposition of punishments such as imprisonment sentences of between 90 days to 5 years, flogging of between 11 to 30 lashes, a monetary fine, or ‘social punishments’ on ‘any individual who, online or offline, incites bi-hijabi [unveiling/not adhering to compulsory veiling] in any manner’ and increases the punishments by a degree where the ‘ “offence” is deemed to have been considered to have been committed in an organised or widespread manner’.[mfn] Under Article 179 of the draft bill ‘Any individual who, online or offline, incites bi-hejabi [unveiling/not adhering to compulsory veiling] in any manner, shall be sentenced to one of the degree seven punishments and if the offence in question is committed in an organised or widespread manner, the offender shall be sentenced to a degree six punishment. In case of repeat offenders, the punishments shall be increased by one degree.’ If the ‘offence’ is deemed to have been committee in an organised or widespread manner, the authorities can sentence individuals to a punishment, which may include an imprisonment of between 6 months and 2 years, a monetary fine, a flogging of between 31 and 74 lashes, and ‘social punishments’ (for certain periods of time). In cases where the ‘offence’ is repeated the punishments are increased by one degree, meaning in the first category (when the conduct is not deemed organised or widespread) the punishment may be one of the following: an imprisonment of between 6 months and 2 years; a monetary fine; flogging of between 31 and 74 lashes, and ‘social punishments’ (for certain periods of time). Where the conduct is deemed to have been organised or widespread, the punishment may be one of the following: an imprisonment of between 2 and 5 years, a monetary fine, or ‘social punishments’ (for certain periods of time). [/mfn]
The provision allows the authorities to arbitrarily detain and sentence individuals to harsh punishments, including to flogging, which amounts to torture under international law, solely for exercising their human rights, among them the right to protest against discriminatory and abusive forced veiling laws. Under the article, women who appear in public, whether offline or online, without compulsory veiling, may be deemed to have incited and encouraged others to unveil, resulting in severe punishments.
The draft bill not only continues to impose discriminatory, degrading and humiliating compulsory veiling on women and girls, violating an array of their human rights, and to subject those who do not comply to a range of punishments, but also effectively transforms non-state actors, including managers and business owners, into instruments of enforcing compulsory veiling. Under Article 180 of the draft bill:
‘Failure to adhere to veiling [hijab] and chastity regulations by owners and personnel of businesses and vocations, and those in charge of public places such as restaurants, shops, and gymnasiums, will result in social punishment of degree seven.[mfn]For further details, see ‘social punishment’ at the end of the statement. [/mfn] The failure of managers of the aforesaid businesses and public places to oversee compliance of their personnel with veiling and chastity regulations is considered an offence and shall result in the issuance of a fine of 20 million Rials [approximately 50 USD] for the first time and 50 million Rials [approximately 125 USD] for the second time by the Police’s Office for Overseeing Public Facilities.’
Furthermore, Article 180 subjects women who work in certain settings such as the service sector to harsher punishments if they refuse to comply with compulsory veiling by imposing a degree seven social punishment (see below for details on social punishments) rather than a degree eight punishment.
- Other legislative initiatives on discriminatory, humiliating and degrading compulsory veiling
In addition to the draft bill on Discretionary Punishments, which remains before the parliament, the authorities have announced a number of other legislative initiatives. On 3 February 2023, Mousa Ghazanfar Abadi, the head of parliament’s legal and judicial commission, stated that the parliamentary commission was considering a draft bill under which the ID cards of women who refused to comply with compulsory veiling would be suspended and until the time they paid their fine they would be deprived of accessing certain services such as bank services. On 26 February, Mehdi Ahmadi, the head of the Headquarters for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice in Qazvin province, stated that a draft bill on hijab and chastity had been prepared by the Headquarters and would be submitted to parliament for consideration. He further added that the goal of the draft bill was to ‘increase the impact [of enforcement] while reducing the social costs’.
In yet another alarming statement on 15 March, Bijan Nobaveh, a member of the Cultural Commission of parliament, announced a proposal on hijab and chastity prepared by the Commission, which entails ‘seven suggested provisions regarding intelligent and indirect confrontation [to lack of adherence to forced veiling] so that there would not be any instances of physical confrontation in enforcing the law while the nation’s hijab is preserved and those breaching the law are punished…’ He further stated that under the new proposal, the SIM cards of women who, after receiving several warnings with regards to their hijab do not comply, will be blocked and their access to the internet cut off.
The use of technologies to enforce discriminatory, humiliating and degrading compulsory veiling
Various Islamic Republic officials have made announcements about the use of technologies to identify women and girls who do not abide by compulsory veiling laws. These statements have given rise to serious concerns about the use of facial recognition technologies as part of the state’s crackdown on human rights and freedoms.
For instance, in December 2022, Ali Khan Mohammadi, the spokesperson for the Headquarters for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, stated that ‘newer, more up-to-date and precise ways’ as well as ‘existing technologies’ should be used for enforcing compulsory veiling. The statement came in the wake of previous announcements regarding the same issue. In August 2022 the vice secretary of the Headquarters for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, Hashemi Golpayegani, had announced plans for the passage of a Chastity and Hijab (veiling) bill, which he said would allow for the use of facial recognition technology to operate in government buildings, cars, and public transportation and all public spaces. He stated:
‘In governmental buildings, managers will be subjected to punishments, including through salary reductions, if after several warnings issued to women without proper veiling, they do not comply. According to this bill, in public spaces such as the underground where a manager is not able to exercise such powers, if an individual commits conduct contrary to norms, instead of arresting them, cameras will capture their image and they will be issued with a fine. The [captured] image shall be corroborated with their photo on their ID cards and the fine order will be sent to their home address.’
ARTICLE 19 has documented instances of women being notified of their ‘infractions’ detected by traffic surveillance while in their cars.
Under Article 9 of the draft bill on Discretionary Punishments, the following can be imposed as ‘social punishments’ for varying durations depending on the degree of the punishment, with degree one being the most severe and degree eight the least:
- Being placed under ‘supervision’ for between six months and five years;
- Mandatory pro-bono public service of between 270 and 2160 hours;
- Monetary fines;
- Mandatory residence in certain location/s for a duration of between one and six years;
- Between up to one-year and six years expulsion from governmental or public positions;
- Between up to one-year and six years of mandatory training in a job, vocation, or profession.
- Between up to one year and six -years’ prohibition from:
- driving vehicles
- owning a cheque book;
- possessing a weapon
- holding certain positions in media institutions, such as the position of editor in chief;
- leaving the country;
- establishing, managing or membership of the directing board of governmental, cooperative, or private companies;
- taking part on juries, mediation or similar councils;
- practising law as an attorney;
- employment in or working for various bodies;
- working for national TV and participation in artistic and theatrical festivals.