By Lucy Cormack
Dubai: Women in Iran who do not wear headscarves in public are being targeted in growing numbers under draconian laws with penalties that include making them wash corpses in morgues and undergo psychological counselling for “anti-social behaviour,” human rights groups say.
The punishments highlight a widening crackdown on women and girls, as Iranian MPs vote to review, behind closed doors, new laws that would enshrine penalties on women who defy veil laws.
Iran has seen a fierce uprising of women discarding their veils since Kurdish Mahsa Amini died while in custody of the morality police last September. The 22-year-old had been detained for allegedly violating the compulsory veil law.
Masses of women, including prominent Iranian actresses have since been handed prison sentences for breaching the laws or in some cases forced to attend psychological counselling to obtain “certificates of healthiness”.
Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was held in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons on trumped-up espionage charges for 804 days, said the harsh punishments being meted out showed little has changed in the regime’s approach to women’s rights.
“Iran remains a country of gender apartheid, wherein women are treated as second-class citizens under the law. The mandatory hijab is the most obvious expression of this, but it is not the most sinister,” she said.
“Women are denied the right of divorce without their husband’s consent, are denied child custody rights, need their husband or father’s permission to leave the country, and are discriminated in inheritance laws.”
A so-called “Hijab and Chastity Bill” drafted in response to the uprising will be reviewed by Iranian MPs without public debate and is expected to be approved for a three to five year trial, the BBC has reported.
An international analysis published by Amnesty International last month found Iranian authorities had escalated targeted policing methods since the return of patrols enforcing compulsory veiling in July.
The report cited recent government figures that more than 1 million women had received SMS warnings threatening the confiscation of their vehicles if found travelling unveiled in a car.
It follows the installation in April of facial recognition technology in public places to identify and penalise unveiled women,police said at the time.
Dr Alam Saleh, from the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, said the uprising had been supercharged by women resisting traditional conservative Islamic norms and values.
“Women are actively participating in the protests in the street, online, on social media and on political stages. They are omnipresent in every single aspect of the process, and this is what worries any kind of traditional institutions,” he said.
Saleh said the regime was attempting to suppress protests with tougher penalties, but insisted the movement would continue without structural changes, or acknowledgment of the peoples’ demands.
Another Iranian academic, who is studying abroad and requested anonymity to speak freely, said the uprising was defined by a new generation, “whose mindset totally contradicts the regime and does not tolerate the rules [being] imposed on it”.
Amnesty’s recent report found women increasingly being denied access to education, banking and public transport for violating veiling laws. Punishments include forced counselling for “anti-social behaviour, washing corpses, and providing cleaning services at governmental buildings”.
Moore-Gilbert, who was released from Evin prison in November 2020, said such penalties showed “decades-long efforts of propagandists to encourage conservative Islamic lifestyles within the population have failed”.
She said the protest movement was the first women-centred major uprising of the 21st century.
“The Women, Life, Freedom protests have crossed an important red line and the clock cannot be wound back. It will prove an impossible task for the regime to enforce hijab without alienating the population further, which will ultimately lead to its undoing,” Moore-Gilbert said.
A UN-mandated investigation last month released a report revealing that since November last year, at least 26 individuals had been sentenced to death in connection with the protests triggered by Amini’s fatal arrest. Dozens more have been charged with or face offences carrying the death penalty.
The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran highlighted specific risks of further deterioration in the human rights of protesters, among them lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders, and in particular women and girls.
The mission, which will deliver its final report in 2024, has also gathered reports of women and girl students allegedly suspended or banned from learning and dormitories for defying veil laws, while businesses have been fined or closed for non-enforcement.
The UN has estimated 582 people were executed in Iran last year, including three children, marking a 75 per cent increase on the previous year. Non-profit Norway-based group Iran Human Rights estimates 440 people have been executed so far this year, including 10 women.
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