Arrests, Prison Sentences Fail to Stem Growing Public Opposition to Iran’s Mandatory Hijab Law

At Least 12 People Sentenced to Prison Since January 2018

August 19, 2019 – Mounting arrests and prison sentences have not enabled Iran’s government to achieve broad public compliance with the country’s mandatory hijab law, or stem growing protests against it.

At least 12 people have been issued prison sentences ranging from six months to 33 years for publicly removing their headscarves and other public acts of civil disobedience against compulsory hijab since January 2018, and 32 have been arrested for such acts, according to research by the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Beyond these cases of public civil disobedience that receive significant media attention, millions of women who do not conform to the state’s dictates regarding mandatory dress codes are stopped by the police each year for “improper hijab,” and tens of thousands are referred to the judiciary in court cases each year.

“Wearing or not wearing a hijab is about freedom of expression, a fundamental and inalienable human right that should be defended,” said CHRI’s Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi.

“The Iranian authorities are employing the full machinery of the state to crush opposition to forced hijab, but with more than half the population against it, the tide is increasingly against them,” Ghaemi added.

report on hijab that was based on surveys conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Association in 2006 and 2014 and released by the Rouhani administration in 2018 found that 49.2% of the Iranian population believed hijab is a personal matter and should not be made mandatory. The report acknowledged that “demanding” hijab in a society where so many see it as a personal and optional matter “is very difficult.”

A report by Iran’s Parliamentary Research Center released in March 2018 also found waning support for the hijab among Iranian society and proposed revising Iran’s mandatory hijab law as one possible approach, but nothing has been done legislatively since then.

That society is changing is clear from the government’s own reports, but so far, the security and judicial arms of state have chosen instead to dig in and clamp down harder to impose hardline conservative views, treating opposition to mandatory hijab as opposition to the authority of the government.

  • CHRI calls on the authorities in Iran to immediately release the women and men who have been imprisoned for their peaceful acts of protest against mandatory hijab, and to cease criminalizing freedom of expression including the right to peaceful dissent.
  • CHRI further call on the relevant UN human rights bodies, including the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as governments worldwide, to urge the Iranian authorities to immediately release the individuals who have been imprisoned for their peaceful acts of protest against mandatory hijab.

Courts Equate Bare Heads with Prostitution

For this basic act of civil disobedience against compulsory hijab, the authorities have charged these individuals with national security crimes.

Such charges reflect not only an attempt to vilify these women and men and discredit them in the public eye, they also serve to strip them of their due process rights, because national security-related charges in Iran allow the judiciary to deny access to counsel during the investigation stage.

The hijab protestors are also typically prosecuted under charges related to “morality,” such as “encouraging people to corruption and prostitution,” “insulting the sacred,” “removing the hijab in public,” “publishing indecent material on social media,” and “committing a forbidden act in a public space.” Such charges are blatant attempts by the authorities to smear and degrade the protestors in the eyes of the public.

Article 639 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code stipulates one to 10 years of imprisonment for “anyone who establishes or directs a place of immorality or prostitution” or anyone who “facilitates or encourages people to immorality or prostitution.”

“The judicial authorities in Iran are equating the peaceful defense of freedom of expression with prostitution and immorality, reflecting the bankruptcy of judicial policy in Iran,” said Ghaemi.

Sentences Pile up, 10 Women and Two Men Prosecuted Since 2018

At least 10 women and two men in Iran are known to have been sentenced to prison under “morality” and “national security” charges for engaging in peaceful protest against forced hijab since January 2018.

Some defendants may have chosen to keep their cases private so the total number of convictions is likely higher. Iranian authorities often pressure detainees to remain silent about their cases under the pretense that they could get lighter sentences.

Monireh Arabshahi and Yasaman Ariyani (Arabshahi’s daughter) were sentenced to 16 years in prison (10 years for “encouraging people to corruption and prostitution,” five years for “assembly and collusion against national security” and one year for “propaganda against the state”) at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran on July 31, 2019.

Mojgan Keshavarz was sentenced on July 31 to 23.6 in prison (10 years for “encouraging people to corruption and prostitution,” five years for “assembly and collusion against national security,” one year for “propaganda against the state” and 7.6 years for “insulting the sacred”) at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran.

In a widely shared video that appeared on multiple social media networks on March 8, 2019, International Women’s Day, Arabshahi, Ariyani and Keshavarz were seen handing out flowers in the Tehran metro while suggesting to passengers that the hijab should be a choice. They were later arrested on different days the following month: Ariyani on April 10, Arabshahi on April 11 and Keshavarz on April 25. They will appeal their sentences.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent defense attorney, was sentenced to 33.8 years in prison and 148 lashes in March 2019 (12 years of which she must serve according to Article 134 of the Islamic Penal Code) in part for representing compulsory-hijab protesters in court. She has been held in Evin Prison since June 2018 and refused to appeal the sentence to protest Iran’s unjust judicial process.

Reza Khandan and Farhad Meysami were both sentenced to six years in prison and banned from leaving Iran or engaging in online activities for two years in January 2019 for peacefully protesting the country’s compulsory hijab law in part by having pins that said “I’m against forced hijab” on them. Khandan, who is attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh’s husband, has been out on bail since January 2019.

On August 11, the Appeals Court confirmed Meysami’s six-year prison sentence and reduced the two-year ban on his online activities to one year, his lawyer Mohammad Moghimi, wrote on his Telegram channel. Meysami, a medical doctor, has been in Evin Prison since July 2018.

Azam Jangravi was sentenced to three years in prison under the charge of “encouraging people to corruption and prostitution” on an unspecified date in 2018. She was arrested in October 2018 after removing her headscarf on Revolution St. in Tehran. She left Iran for Canada at an unspecified date.

Shima Babaei posted a video on Instagram on June 4, 2018, stating that Branch 1090 of the Guidance Court in Tehran had sentenced her to two months in prison and fined her 10 million rials (approximately $236.50 USD) for the charges of “removing the hijab in public” and “publishing indecent material on social media.”

It is not known when and where she was detained but she was released on bail in March 2018 and left Iran for Turkey on an unspecified date that year.

Shaparak Shajarizadeh was initially arrested in late February 2018 for removing her headscarf and waving it on a stick in the northern Tehran neighborhood of Gheytarieh, and again on May 8 in the city of Kashan, 152 miles south of Tehran, also for allegedly removing her hijab in public.

She was sentenced to two years in prison and an 18-year suspended sentence on an unspecified date under the charges of  “not observing Islamic hijab” and “encouraging corruption” between June-July 2018. She was represented by attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh. She has not returned to Iran since traveling to Canada in July 2018.

Maryam Shariatmadari was arrested on February 23, 2018, for removing her headscarf on a busy street in central Tehran and waving it on a stick like a flag. She was sentenced to a year in prison on March 25, 2018, by Branch 1091 of the Tehran Criminal Court for the charge of “encouraging corruption by removing her hijab,” according to her lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh. She was released on bail in March 2018 and has been out of the country since an unspecified date that same year.

Narges Hosseini was arrested on January 29, 2018, for removing her headscarf on a busy street in central Tehran and waving it on a stick like a flag. Two months later, in March 2018, the sociology graduate student from the city of Kashan, Isfahan Province, was sentenced to 24 months in prison—21 months suspended for five years—for the charges of “encouraging people to engage in corruption by removing the hijab in public” and “committing a forbidden act in a public space.” Her lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, announced at the time that they would be appealing the sentence. She was released on bail in February 2018 and has been out of the country since an unspecified date in that year.

Vida Movahedi was arrested on December 27, 2017, after she stood on a utility box on Revolution St. in Tehran, removed her headscarf, and waved it on a stick in an act of civil disobedience. The mother to a toddler who became an icon for what came to be referred to by international media as the “Girls of Revolution, was released and rearrested after repeating the action and ultimately sentenced to one year in prison for the charge of “encouraging people to corruption and prostitution” by Branch 1091 of the Guidance Court in Tehran on March 2, 2019. She was released on furlough in May 2019.

“These harsh sentences reflect the failure of state forces to impose their will,” noted Ghaemi. “Despite years of policing the streets, more and more women refuse to conform to state dictates regarding their attire.”

“As a result, the authorities are resorting to draconian measures and the abuse of power, which only deepens the divide between the state and society,” said Ghaemi.


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