Women’s’ victimisation in Iran is labelled as “ethical standards”

Iranian women have long been suffering victimisation and oppression due to a bystander government and its actions towards its people. A week ago, at least 50 civilians were killed and over 700 were arrested after Iranian security forces launched an attack against week-long protests ignited across the country, following the police murder of Mahsa Amini. The young 22-year-old Iranian woman, also known as Jina Aminio Zhina Amini, died in Tehran on 16th September 2022, under suspicious circumstances, allegedly due to police brutality; and more specifically, the ‘morality police’s’ actions against women suspected of violating the dress code. With Iran, being a predominantly Muslim country, since the country’s 1979 revolution all women are required, regardless of nationality or religious belief, to wear a hijab that covers the head and neck while concealing the hair; this is transcribed in Iranian law.

Ms Amini, died following her arrest and detainment, after being taken away from her brother who was accompanying her, by the “morality police”, an authorised Islamic vice squad police organisation, which is part of the Iran’s Law Enforcement Command, (a unit responsible for enforcing Iran’s strict dress code for women, notably the wearing of a headscarf in public), with the justification that she was not wearing the hijab in accordance to the said government standards; a punishable crime under Islamic Hijab Rules. The allegory of the story is that that Ms Amini was in fact wearing a hijab and the incident was instigated, due to some hair strands appearing in common sight.

Ms Amini’s death resulted in a series of large-scale protests across the country which garnered international attention, including a statement from the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, highlighting the violence that women in the Islamic Republic of Iran are being confronted by. The incident is also condemned by various leaders and organisations, around the world such as OHCHR[1], and the United States Department of the Treasury[2], who imposed sanctions on the morality police and Iranian leaders in various security organisations.

On the contrary, to the eyewitnesses and women (who were detained with Amini), account of events, the police proclaimed her death as a result of Ms Amini suffering a heart attack whilst in custody at the station, fell on the floor, and consequently, died after two days in a coma. Eyewitnesses and women who were detained with Amini held that she was brutally beaten, which in addition to her leaked medical scans, led independent observers to diagnose cerebral haemorrhage and stroke. The moral police have already faced growing criticism in recent months over their excessive use of force.

Τhe mandatory nature of the hijab by the State acts as political symbol to delegate women to second-class citizens, these protests do not proclaim the citizens’ protests simply against the hijab per se, but also assert their opposition to a systematic state policy of repression against women. The Qur’an instructs Muslim women and men to dress modestly, and safeguard that the hijab is worn by Muslim girls and women to maintain modesty and privacy from unrelated males. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam and Muslim World, modesty concerns both men’s and women’s “gaze, gait, garments and genitalia”.[3] An oxymoron is that Islam places the primary responsibility of observing hijab not on women – but on men.

Protests are still ongoing and have in fact expanded globally, with Canada, US, UK people taking the streets. The casualties are said to have been recorded in more than 80 Iranian cities, with most killings reported in Babol, Amol and Rezvan Shahr towns, which are all situated in the north of Iran.[4] Iranian students have also strode up their protests in defiance of a suppression by security forces, who allegedly accosted and shot a number of students at a prestigious university in Tehran on Sunday night, 2nd October 2022; repression of protests and detainees were hauled away with their heads completely covered in fabric.

The Iranian government in an effort, to supress the protests deployed various aggressive measures, such as, shooting protesters with birdshot and metal pellets, deploying tear gas and water cannons, in addition to limiting internet accessibility, to reduce protesters’ access to social media platforms and their ability to organise.[5] The nexus, of the subsequent and ongoing anti hijab protests, which were triggered following Ms Amini’s death, with the systematic repression of women in Iran, is evident. The persecution of the protestors or anyone not conforming to the tyrannic government is real. Professor Mohammad Sadegh Akhoondi, who was among 14 academics from the Medical Sciences University in Tehran who signed a letter condemning the student arrests, was taken into custody, on 30th September 2022. The New York-based Centre for Human Rights observing the events, condemned the Iranian government actions and said, that it was “extremely concerned by videos coming out of Sharif University and Tehran today showing violent repression of protests and detainees being hauled away with their heads completely covered in fabric”.[6]

Excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators violates their rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, security of the person, and the prohibition against torture. Wearing or not the hijab should be considered as a protected right, and more precisely the “freedom to manifest” category of freedom of religion or belief; it concerns the external manifestation of a religion (focum externum) as opposed to a person’s inner thoughts and beliefs (forum internum), as such it is protected by Article 18 (3) ICCPR[7].

Human rights law guarantees the right to freedom of religion, including the right to manifest one’s religious beliefs through worship, observance, practice and teaching in private and in public. Human rights law requires states to guarantee the right to a private life[8], which includes the right to autonomy, for example the freedom to choose what to wear, in private and in public. States must ensure the right to equality or non-discrimination, particularly that there should be no discrimination on the grounds of religion or sex. And finally, states are bound to protect the rights of religious minorities their borders.

Like the vast majority of rights, neither religious freedom nor the right to autonomy is an absolute right under human rights law. Governments can limit these rights, but only when they can demonstrate convincingly that restrictions are necessary to protect public safety, public order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. This is a high threshold for a government to justify. Under international law any restriction on religious freedom must be non-discriminatory and proportionate. Coercing women by imposing the forced use of the hijab, and the use of the moral police as a tool to meet the governments objectives which is in fact aimed at oppressing  and to regulate the female population; this is found to be a disproportionate measure and an illegitimate aim and this is extensively restrictive and is violating Iranian women’s fundamental rights to freedom, and their right to autonomy, as such, by micromanaging, and monitoring what they are wearing. Moral education can be a potentially less restrictive tool but not one that can be utilised as disguised propaganda or censoring women’s attire, or social behaviour.

The interrelationship of human rights protections being compromised in Iran is not a new question. The arrest of Iranian human rights lawyer and activist Nasrin Soutedeh, in 2010, on charges of spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security, is an example, of the Iranian states’ violations against the female Iranian population human rigths and the infringement of their civil rights.

Ms Soutedeh, who was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, represented imprisoned Iranian opposition activists and politicians following the disputed June 2009 Iranian presidential elections and other women that chose not to observe the hijab. Ms Soutedeh, who was initially, sentenced in January 2011, by Iranian authorities, to 11 years in prison, was debarred and was prohibited from leaving the country for 20 years. In June 2018, she was imprisoned again for seven years, it was reported by other sources that the maximum sentence included 10 years in prison and 148 lashes, along with six other verdicts and sentences totalling 38 years bundled together, her sentence was reduced later to 10 years total.  She is still in Qarchak Prison as of July 2021.

Human Rights Watch has previously stated in a similar context that the crucial point is that it is not up to the state to define or interpret the meaning of religious symbols; what is decisive is that the individual considers it to be a manifestation of his or her religious belief. The right to freedom of religion and belief protests religious rights but also dissenters within religious majorities and atheists.

According to international human rights law principles, the state should neither deny nor impose religious beliefs or particular manifestations. Oppressing women to wear the hijab is not only infringing international women rights but a women’s right to private life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[9] is also an international document that enumerates the basic rights and freedoms inherent to all human beings, irrespective of race, ethnicity nationality religion, gender, place of residence, or any other status, is safeguarding women’s rights. In addition, particular gendered protections are located in the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)[10], the only international agreement that addresses women’s rights in the political, civil, cultural, economic and social spheres.

Ms Amini’s death, the continued persecution of ensuing protests who are in pursue of freedom and democracy and the following deaths of multiple protestors is to say the least alarming, especially observing how the Iranian authorities and their religious enforcement agencies, such, as the “morality police”, censor and monitor women and forcefully violate their human and civil rights’. Ms Amini’s only “crime” was exercising her autonomous right of freedom of expression and right to a private life, which includes the right to autonomy, as such, the freedom to choose what to wear, in private and in public. An open enquiry by the special rapporteur on Torture, should be opened to investigate into the allegations of torture before her death whilst in police custody, and safeguard that her family has access to justice and the truth, so that other young women are protected and do not have the same fate as Ms Amini faced.

[1] https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/09/iran-un-experts-demand-accountability-death-mahsa-amini-call-end-violence;

[2]See, on US Treasury sanctions on ’s Morality Police and Senior Security Officials for Violence Against Protesters and the Death of Mahsa Amini, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0969;https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/us-sanctions-irans-morality-police-in-wake-of-mahsa-aminis-death/2692424;

[3] Sara Omar, “Dress”. In The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t349/e0040, (accessed Oct 2, 2022).

[4] https://iranhr.net/en/articles/5497/;https://www.institutkurde.org/en/info/latest/at-least-50-people-killed-in-iran-protest-crackdown-ngo-10222/

[5]See, on Iran shutdown, – ‘A joint investigation by Amnesty International and The Hertie School in partnership with the Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA), project’, https://iran-shutdown.amnesty.org;

[6] https://iranhumanrights.org/2022/10/sharif-students-violently-attacked-arrested-by-security-forces-as-protests-in-iran-spread/

[7]See, further on Special Procedures/Religion or Belief – ‘International Standards – Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief’ https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-procedures/sr-religion-or-belief/international-standards;

[8]Article 8, ECHR, https://echr.coe.int/Documents/Guide_Art_8_ENG.pdf

[9]UDHR, document, please refer to https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[10]The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, (CEDAW), https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/ (accessed September 29, 2022).


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