Veiled Horror: Iran’s headscarf protesters sentenced to decades in prison

Saba Kord Afshari (source: Iran Human Rights Monitor)

Iran features daily in international headlines: for alleged attacks on oil tankers; for breaching conditions of the 2015 nuclear deal; for sponsoring terrorism throughout the region, and much more.

But a subject that barely rates a mention in the Australian media, or elsewhere, is Iran’s egregious human rights record, of which the harsh and ongoing persecution of women is a chilling example.

White Wednesdays” is a courageous campaign of non-violent protest  against the nation’s forced hijab and Islamic dress laws but, according to Amnesty International, in the past year Iranian authorities have increased their suppression of these peaceful protests in the most draconian way imaginable.

A recent example is last month’s imprisonment for 24 years of Saba Kord Afshari, a civil rights activist in her early 20s, on charges including  “gathering and collusion against national security”, through supporting political prisoners, and “propaganda against the state” through collaborating with opposition and subversive groups. However the largest component of her sentence – 15 years – was for “promoting corruption and prostitution through appearing without a headscarf in public.”

Afshari was originally arrested last year, along with dozens of others, during protests against government corruption and the deterioration of the economy. Sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for disrupting public order, she was released in February this year, but re-arrested in June and held in custody until her trial.

During her detention she was subjected to solitary confinement and threats of imprisonment against family members, in order to pressure her to appear before a camera and denounce the “White Wednesdays” campaign. Despite the coercion, and her mother’s subsequent arrest, she refused.

On the day of her trial, Afshari was transferred to the court, blindfolded and in handcuffs, by officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It was here, before the judge, that she met her lawyer for the first time.

Saba Kord Afshari is not alone in her fate. In July, Mojgan Keshavarz was sentenced to 23 and a half years in prison, and Monireh Arabshahi and her daughter, Yasaman Aryani, to 16 years each for their peaceful campaign against the mandatory wearing of the headscarves.

Keshavarz, Arabshahi and Aryani appeared in a social media video which showed them with their heads uncovered, handing out flowers in the Teheran metro on March 8 this year, International Women’s Day, suggesting to members of the public that headscarves should be optional. They were arrested the following month, and forcibly “disappeared” for between nine and 14 days. They were denied access to lawyers during the initial investigation and at their trials.

Aryani, 24, like Afshari, spent time in solitary confinement, during which she was threatened with the arrest of family members – her father and younger sibling – unless she “repented” before the cameras for her involvement in “White Wednesdays”.

In March, Zarrin Badpa, the elderly mother of Masih Alinejad, was filmed after being taken in for questioning about her daughter’s activities, raising concerns that statements she gave under duress will be used in propaganda videos.

The most shocking case was the sentencing in March of human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, to 33 years’ imprisonment and 148 lashes for defending women against the abusive head covering laws.

The Women of White Wednesdays

These women are all members of the “White Wednesdays” campaign against compulsory veiling, which calls on women to protest forced hijab laws by wearing white headscarves on Wednesdays. Many women have posted photos of themselves on social media, using the hashtag #whitewednesdays.

The campaign, which commenced in 2017, is an initiative of Iranian journalist, Masih Alinejad, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US. Previously she had founded “My Stealthy Freedom”, an online movement opposing the mandatory dress code, which posts photos and videos, usually taken in secret,  of women with their heads uncovered. “White Wednesdays”, by contrast, is a public movement.

One video posted by Alinejad is of a woman walking with her head uncovered, accompanied by the comment “I am #WalkingUnveiled in Mashhad on [sic] of the most religious city in Iran to protest compulsory hijab. This is a punishable crime but freedom is not free. Every day is #WhiteWednesdays for us.”

Other videos posted by Alinejad reveal the violent physical attacks, abuse, harassment and degrading treatment meted out to women in Iran by the morality police and some members of the public, should they dare defy the hijab laws.

Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said it was “outrageous that [these women] are now being tortured or otherwise ill-treated to compel their participation in state propaganda videos in which they ‘confess’ their ‘guilt’ and renounce the anti-forced veiling campaign.”

Yet in a further push to enforce the wearing of the hijab and quash dissent, Iranian police this month begin implementation of “Watch 2” – whereby officers are deployed in public places to “verbally warn” women who are not adequately complying with the strict dress code.

This follows “Watch 1”, in which police confronted inadequately-veiled women who were driving or riding in vehicles. Police then sent a text to the vehicle owner, requiring them to attend morality police headquarters within 72 hours to commit in writing that there would be no repetition of the offence. A breach would lead to the vehicle being seized and held for a week, a third offence to its confiscation and the owner forced before the judiciary.

The next phase, “Watch 3”, will target women’s clothing factories and shops to prevent them from manufacturing or selling “un-Islamic” garments.

Dying to Watch a Soccer Game

And in a variation on the theme of “modesty” as the basis for crushing women’s rights, a 29-year-old woman is fighting for life, after setting herself on fire outside a Teheran courthouse on September 2, in protest against a six-month sentence for trying to enter a stadium, disguised as a man, to watch a football match. Identified as “Sahar” in media reports, she was charged with “insulting the public by defying the dress code for women”.

Iranian women have been banned from sports stadiums since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, on the grounds that watching men play in shorts promotes promiscuity. This is a blatant violation of FIFA’s code of ethics, which prohibits such gender discrimination.

Thousands of Iranians have voiced their support for the woman on social media, using the hashtag #BanIRSportsFederations, calling for an international ban on their own nation’s participation in sport as a punishment for its abuse of human rights. Even Masoud Shojaei, captain of the Iran men’s football team, in a Persian-language post on Instagram, commented “Without a doubt the self-immolation of a girl today after the extension of her custody on the charge of trying to enter a stadium to watch football is rooted in outdated and cringe-worthy thoughts that will not be understood by future generations.”

UN hypocrisy

With regard to the lengthy prison sentences imposed on the hijab protesters, a group of UN human rights experts last month called on Iran to quash the convictions, saying, “We are alarmed that the arrest and lengthy sentences handed to these women are directly related to the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly in the pursuit of gender equality in Iran… We remind the Iranian authorities that women human rights defenders challenging the imposition of a compulsory dress code on women are acting in defence of universally guaranteed human rights. The use of repressive legislation to criminalise the exercise of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly is incompatible with Iran’s obligations under international human rights law”.

It is a bitter irony that in March this year, that same organisation, the UN, appointed the misogynistic Islamic Republic of Iran to its Commission on the Status of Women , to serve on the working group that considers reports of alleged human rights violations affecting the status of women. These reports are then used to identify “trends and patterns of injustice and discriminatory practices against women for purposes of policy formulation and development of strategies for the promotion of gender equality”.

It is evident that, both in the UN and most of the world’s media, there is little interest in shining a light, let alone bringing pressure to bear, on Iran over the human rights abuses it inflicts daily on it population in general, and Iranian women in particular.