By Pegah Sadeghi, Amnesty International Research Assistant on Iran
Source: Amnesty International
Armita Garawand, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, remains in a coma after falling unconscious on 1 October 2023 at a Tehran metro amid reports that a confrontation with somebody enforcing Iran’s degrading and discriminatory compulsory veiling laws led to her hospitalisation. Her hospitalisation comes against a backdrop of Iranian authorities’ intensified oppression against women and girls in recent months.
If I was still in Iran, leaving the house every day would come with a choice: my bodily autonomy and my freedom, or risk of harassment, violence, fines and imprisonment. If I left the house unveiled, I would also fear losing my car, my job and my freedom.
It is with nothing but admiration, therefore, that I watch women and girls in Iran who continue to bravely defy Iran’s compulsory veiling laws on a daily basis. They continue to do so in the face of the Iranian authorities’ intensified assault on women’s rights, which includes introducing harsher draconian penalties to further punish unveiling and silence dissent.
Just over one year ago, 22-year-old Mahsa/Zhina Amini died in custody days after her arrest by the so-called “morality” police, amid credible reports of torture. She was arrested for not complying with Iran’s discriminatory compulsory veiling laws. Her death sparked an unprecedented popular uprising across Iran, in which demonstrators chanted “Woman Life Freedom”. Tens of thousands of people also marched across the world including in Europe in solidarity with women and girls in Iran. European leaders expressed strong statements of solidarity with Iranians, condemning the crackdown by the Iranian authorities. As we saw statements of solidarity and support pouring in from Europe and beyond, Iranians felt emboldened.
Since Mahsa/Zhina Amini’s death in custody, Iranian authorities have with unspeakable cruelty, inflicting violence on people in Iran to stifle protests and crush dissent. The authorities have committed a litany of crimes under international law with impunity, including hundreds of unlawful killings, the arbitrary execution of seven people in relation to the protests, tens of thousands of arbitrary arrests and systematic torture, including rape and other sexual violence, against detainees, and the widespread harassment of victims’ families.
Despite this, women and girls in Iran have continued to bravely defy the Islamic Republic’s discriminatory and degrading compulsory veiling laws. For daring to do so, they have faced severe punishments and violation of their human rights. Countless women have been suspended or expelled from universities and denied access to banking services. Women have also been prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment and degrading punishments, such as washing corpses.
To this day, not a single Iranian official has been held accountable for ordering, planning and committing widespread and systematic human rights violations against women and girls through the implementation of compulsory veiling.
Iranian officials, emboldened by impunity, have ruthlessly crushed protests and targeted those who attempted to mark the anniversary of the uprising.
I was happy to see EU leaders reaffirming their support for Iranian women and girls in the face of Iranian authorities’ repression. However, the ‘Bill to Support the Culture of Chastity and Hijab’ poses a serious test to their stated commitment.
This bill, which is at its last procedural stage before final approval, further codifies the Iranian authorities’ oppressive methods of policing women and girls and punishes those who dare to stand up for their rights. If approved by Iran’s Guardian Council, it will impose a vast array of penalties severely violating the rights of women and girls, and further entrench violence and discrimination against them. It also equates unveiling to “nudity” and provides for prison terms of up to 10 years for anyone who defies compulsory veiling laws. It would also expand the powers and capabilities of intelligence and security bodies, including the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary Basij force and the police, allowing them to further surveil and oppress women and girls. The enforcement of this bill by various political, security, and administrative arms of the Islamic Republic would further violate a host of social, economic, cultural, civil and political rights — and intensify the kind of violence that resulted in the death in custody of Mahsa/ Zhina Amini.
I know that the EU is not the perfect champion for women’s rights. In fact, some member states, such as France, are guilty of policing what women can wear. Since September, children in France have been prevented from attending classes in school if they wear Abayas or Qamis – loose-fitting over garments traditionally worn in Maghreb and Gulf countries, as well as West Africa. EU countries must do better on women’s and girls’ rights and uphold their right to bodily autonomy, no matter where the violations occur. UN experts have expressed concern that Iran’s new bill on compulsory veiling could amount to “gender apartheid” as the “authorities appear to be governing through systemic discrimination with the intention of suppressing women and girls into total submission.”
EU leaders must urgently call on the Iranian authorities to revoke the ‘Bill to Support the Culture of Chastity and Hijab’ before it becomes law and abolish all degrading and discriminatory compulsory veiling laws and regulations. They must also urge them to quash all convictions against women and girls for defying compulsory veiling, drop charges against those facing prosecution, and unconditionally release any in detention. The EU must also ensure that human rights are publicly and clearly articulated in their engagement with Iran, including in the mandate of the newly appointed EU Special Representative to the Gulf.
Crucially, EU member states must also pursue legal pathways at the international level to hold Iranian officials accountable for ordering, planning and committing such widespread and systematic violations of women and girls’ rights.
Pegah Sadeghi is the Amnesty International Research Assistant on Iran. This was originally published as an opinion piece on the EU Observer.