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Iran’s latest crackdown on women and freedom of expression

It is no longer just about the hijab but a wider issue of freedom of freedom of expression. Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, women have been forced to wear the hijab in public. Back then, more than 100,000 women and men took to the streets to protest against the law and opposition to it has never gone away. On 31 July, three women were sentenced to 55 years in prison for defying the Islamic dress code in Iran.

55 years for disobeying the dress code

Monireh Arabshahi, Yasamin Aryani, and Mojgan Keshavarz, who had been held in custody since April, were sentenced by the Iranian Revolutionary Court to prison terms of at least 16 years each for disobeying the country’s Islamic dress code and “disrespecting compulsory hijab”.

On 31 July, Branch 31 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced all three women to five years in prison for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” one year for “propaganda against the state,” and ten years for “encouraging and providing for [moral] corruption and prostitution.” The court sentenced Keshavarz to an additional seven-and-a-half years for “insulting the sacred.”

“It is ridiculous that the Iranian authorities are arresting and prosecuting women for protesting against discriminatory dress code laws,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The authorities should immediately release these women’s rights activists and reform these outmoded and discriminatory laws.”

The charges stemmed from a video taken on International Women’s Day that was widely shared on social media in March showing them without headscarves. The video shows Arabshahi, Aryani and Keshavarz without their headscarves, disseminating flowers to women on the metro in Tehran while discussing their views on the future of women’s rights in Iran.

“The day will come when we won’t have to fight for our most basic rights,” Arabshahi is heard saying in the video. Ariyani is seen talking to one woman wearing the chador, a full black robe, saying she hopes one day to walk down the street with her, “me without the hijab and you with the hijab.”

The women were delivered the verdicts in the absence of their legal counsel, according to the Iran Human Rights Monitor. Legal counsel was also denied during certain stages of the indictment process, interrogations and even during the trial itself.

Iran’s crackdown on the freedom of expression

On 5 August, over a dozen Iranian women’s rights activists sent an open letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling for him to resign from his position after his 20-year tenure. Two of the 14 signatories were arrested by Iranian authorities and the remainder are vulnerable to potential political persecution or arrest.

The activists wrote: “In a world that women in most countries move side by side with men in science, economy, culture, arts, and politics, under the Islamic Republic women still fight for their basic human rights”.

In 2018, 112 women were arrested in Iran for defending women’s rights, many for peacefully protesting against Iran’s mandatory hijab law. The renowned human rights lawyer who has defended several of the women, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was sentenced on 11 March 2019 to a total of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. She was charged with several national security-related offences, all of which she denies.

It is no longer just about the hijab. Women in Iran could be jailed for up to a decade for filming or taking photos of themselves without their headscarves in public, following a warning on 29 July from the head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. The threat came in response to the campaign titled “White Wednesdays”, spearheaded by the US-based activist Masih Alinejad, who is encouraging women in the country to send her photos and videos of themselves without the compulsory hijab.

“Iran’s forced veiling laws are a blatant breach of Iranian women’s rights to freedom of expression, belief and religion. The Iranian authorities must immediately repeal these discriminatory laws and abolish the degrading bans on women’s appearance in public without the hijab,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement.

White Wednesdays

Five years ago, Masih Alinejad took a photo of herself driving without the hijab and posted it on social media. The photo and message went viral and that unexpected outpouring of support launched a movement: first, a Facebook page branded as “My Stealthy Freedom” that invited women to post images of themselves without hijab and encouraged freedom of expression; within a month, the page had nearly 500,000 likes.

That was followed in 2017 by a hashtag campaign – #WhiteWednesdays – encouraging women to wear white scarves on Wednesdays to protest laws requiring hijab. Today, Masih has more than two million followers and the movement has become a force for the Iranian government to reckon with.

In an interview with IOHR, Masih said that by forcing women to wear hijab “we have to carry the most visible symbol of an oppressive regime on our bodies. That is why I strongly believe that when I am protesting against compulsory hijab, it is the first step towards full equality. […] We won’t have real democracy in Iran while women are not free to choose their own dress code”

She also emphasised that the hashtag has become so much more than an online movement.

“It’s not an online movement anymore. People are taking to the streets, walking unveiled which is a punishable crime, and men are joining them,” she told IOHR. “It has become the most prominent civil disobedience movement.”

The Girls of Revolution Street

In December 2017, on the eve of protests over economic issues that briefly convulsed Iran, a 31 year-old mother named Vida Movahed stood atop a utility box on a busy street named for the country’s 1979 revolution, silently waving her white hijab like a flag. #WhiteWednesdays is thought to have been an inspiration for Vida’s move to completely remove her headscarf in December. She was arrested on 27 December 2017 and again on 29 October 2018.

In December 2017 and January 2018, several women took their headscarves off while standing on electric utility boxes across the country to protest the law that requires that all women cover their hair. They became known as “the Girls of Revolution Street” and since then women have continued to protest the law across the country. The authorities have responded with arrests and prosecutions.

In her interview with IOHR, Masih said: “I’m not going to lose hope. When I see these brave women, these fearless women, […] I strongly believe they can bring change to society.”

In April 2018, IOHR organised a protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London to call for the release of women jailed in Iran for protesting against the compulsory hijab law.

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