On Monday, it was reported that Iran’s vice president for legal affairs, one of only three females appointed to serve in positions during President Hassan Rouhani’s second term, had begun to wear the full body covering chador, instead of the less conservative hijab, which covers only the hair and is legally required for all women. The change was widely regarded as further capitulation to hardline pressures, especially in light of the fact that the official, Laaya Joneidi, was responding to pressure coming directly from the supposedly moderate Rouhani.
Iran News Update pointed out that this incident contributed to a bleak picture of the future of women’s rights under the Rouhani administration and beyond. Other contributors to that picture include videos depicting the forcible apprehension of women accused of inadequate veiling. Estimates from within the Iranian regime indicate that an average of 2,000 women are accosted in this way each day in cities throughout the Islamic Republic. And Iranian officials have reportedly committed to intensifying the crackdown even further. This may account for some of the pressure that was exerted on Joneidi to dress in a manner that is more in line with hardline expectations.
Underscoring the intensifying crackdown, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported on Tuesday that the public prosecutor in Mazandaran Province had recently vowed that the judiciary would aggressively prosecute women for “bad hijab,” even in semi-private areas. The prosecutors highlighted the phenomenon of women removing their veils while alone in cars. This is the means by which some women participated in the widely popular “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign, in which they posted images of themselves on social media after privately removing their veils.
Iranian authorities had already made efforts to crack down on this trend, announcing new legal guidelines for the impounding of vehicles in which women have been found to have violated the Islamic dress code. Now the Mazandaran public prosecutor has made clear that the province intends to aggressively follow through on those guidelines, as well as taking other measures to discourage clothing violations, as by monitoring and controlling the manufacturers and sellers of clothing deemed appropriate by clerical authorities.
Mazandaran is by no means alone in its proactive approach to forced veiling. In recent years, various provincial and local authorities have taken up the cause, including the mayor and city council in Tehran, where gender segregation in public spaces and in the workplace have dramatically expanded. And these local-level efforts are in line with preoccupations that have been established at the national level, particularly by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the final authority in all matters of Iranian policy.
In 2015, Khamenei announced broad-ranging initiatives to reduce access to birth control while encouraging Iranian women to eschew education and the workplace in favor of raising large families at an early age. This roughly coincided with legislation aimed at increasing the power of the Revolutionary Guards-linked Basij militia to harass women and men in public for perceived violations of Islamic laws and guidelines.
Meanwhile, there have certainly been contrary pressures regarding women’s rights and gender issues. These come not only from activists like the participants in the My Stealthy Freedom campaign but also from a handful of relatively reform-minded legislators in the Iranian parliament. Yet legislative measures in this area meet with severe resistance from powerful hardline voices. And wherever this is the case, the legislation is unlikely to be made law regardless of its level of support among legislators, since all bills are vetted by the Guardian Council for compliance with the supreme leader’s guidelines and his vision of Islamic law.
This phenomenon of hardline resistance was highlighted recently by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, which reported that Zabihollah Khodaian, the Iranian judiciary’s assistant for legal affairs, had expressed strong opposition to legislation aimed at preventing and punishing domestic violence. “This proposal has some 100 articles, 70 of which describe situations with criminal implications,” he objected. “They impose prison sentences for every little tension between couples.”
The CHRI report notes that studies have shown that approximately one third of all women in Iran’s urban areas and two thirds of all women in its rural areas have been victims of domestic violence. Nevertheless, conservative lawmakers and government officials, including hardline female members of parliament, have disregarded the issue and used it as an opportunity to lash out against Western society.
CHRI quotes one such female MP, Fatemeh Alia, as speculating that her reformist colleagues are only trying to “impress international organizations” with their legislation in defense of women. She also asserted that violence against women is rare in Iran but “a constant trend” in Western countries. According to the domestic violence resource center, approximately 29 percent of women in the United States have been subjected to “rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner.” While this is slightly below the figure for Iranian urban areas alone, there is a much greater difference in the two countries’ rates of violence against women if one takes into account the state-sanctioned instances of violence perpetrated by Iran’s “morality police.”