Iran: Stop Prosecuting Women Over Dress Code

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities should drop charges and stop prosecuting women for peacefully protesting Iran’s compulsory dress code (hijab) laws, Human Rights Watch said today. At least three women who peacefully protested the hijab law have been arrested since the end of January 2018.
Iranian officials arrested Nargess Hosseini on January 29 as she took off her headscarf to protest Iran’s compulsory hijab while standing on top of an electric utility box on a street in Tehran. They arrested Azam Jangravi on February 14 and Shaparak Shajarizadeh on February 21 in similar circumstances. Sources told Human Rights Watch that Hosseini and Jangravi were released on bail, but Shajarizadeh remains in detention.
“For decades Iranian authorities have imposed a compulsory dress code on women violating their basic freedom to express themselves and restricting access to economic and social opportunities for anyone who refuses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now when women are peacefully protesting a discriminatory dress code, authorities are adding to their misdeeds by arresting them.”
The most recent wave of protests against compulsory hijab began on December 27, 2017, when photos circulated on social media of a woman who had taken off and held aloft her headscarf on Enghelab (Revolution) Street in Tehran. Nasrine Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer, wrote on her Facebook page on January 21 that authorities had arrested the woman on December 27. Social media posts soon began calling her the “Girl of Revolution Street.” On January 28, Sotoudeh confirmed in a Facebook post that the woman had been released on bail.
Since then, dozens of “Girls of Revolution Street” have taken their headscarves off while standing on electric utility boxes across the country. On January 29, Hosseini, 32, stood on the same utility box while waving her headscarf in protest. Authorities immediately arrested her and transferred her to Qarchak prison in Tehran.
Sotoudeh, who is representing Hosseini, said she faces charges of “openly committing a sinful act,” “violating public prudency,” and “encouraging immorality or prostitution.” Under Article 639 of Iran’s penal code, encouraging immorality or prostitution can carry a sentence of between 1 to 10 years in prison. On February 17, authorities released Hosseini on bail. Her trial is scheduled for February 24.
On February 22, Sotoudeh told RadioFarda that authorities had detained and beaten Shajarizadeh. On the same day, a video was published on Twitter that showed a police officer violently pushing a woman who is not wearing a head scarf off a utility box where she was peacefully protesting. Jangravi has also reportedly been released and is awaiting trial.
On February 1, Ilna, the Iranian Labour News Agency, reported that, according to Tehran’s police, 29 people had been arrested in efforts to combat “Masih Alinejad’s unveiling campaign.” Alinejad is an Iranian women’s rights activist who lives outside the country and has campaigned against Iran’s compulsory hijab since 2014.
Hosseini and Jangravi, have stated in media interviews or social media posts that they independently decided to engage in peaceful protest to challenge Iran’s compulsory hijab laws.
Iran has a long history of imposing rules about what women can and cannot wear, violating their fundamental rights. In the 1930s, the then-ruler, Reza Shah, prohibited women from wearing the hijab, and police were ordered to forcibly remove headscarves from women wearing them. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, in the early 1980s, Iranian authorities imposed a mandatory dress code requiring all women to wear the hijab.
In May 2017, Human Rights Watch documented many instances in which women were discriminated against when they applied for a job or in the workplace, based on their choice of apparel.
The enforcement of a compulsory dress code on women in Iran violates their rights to private life, personal autonomy, and freedom of expression, as well as to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience, Human Rights Watch said. It is also a form of gender-based discrimination prohibited under international law.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iran has ratified, guarantees people’s right to freedom of expression, to privacy, and to freedom of religion. Several United Nations independent experts have criticized rules that require wearing religious dress in public. The late Asma Jahangir, the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, had said that the “use of coercive methods and sanctions applied to individuals who do not wish to wear religious dress or a specific symbol seen as sanctioned by religion” indicates “legislative and administrative actions which typically are incompatible with international human rights laws.”
Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether wearing the headscarf or face covering veils is desirable, but opposes both policies of forced veiling and blanket bans on the wearing of religious dress as disproportionate and discriminatory interference with basic rights.  
Human Rights Watch has opposed France’s blanket ban on full-face veils, as well as the ban on Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols in state schools, which are a violation of human rights.
Human Rights Watch has also opposed laws and policies in other countries such as Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan under Taliban rule, for forcing women to cover their hair, body, and sometimes even their face, because these restrictions deny them their right to personal autonomy and their rights to freedom of expression, belief, and religion.
“Women in Iran and elsewhere should be free to dress as they please,” Whitson said. “This includes deciding whether to wear a headscarf or not, no matter what those in power think.”