On Sept. 20, 2023, Iran’s parliament passed a controversial bill that would increase penalties for women not adhering to the rigid Islamic dress code. The law equated refusing to wear hijab—either in public or virtually—as “nudity.” It mandated stiff fines and prison sentences up to a decade for violators. It also penalizes Iranians, including businesses or restaurants, who promote or allow immoral behavior, such as improper dress. The lengthy bill called for a government campaign to promote and “incentivize” conservative Islamic family values. The bill passed 152 to 34, with seven abstentions. Iran has 290 seats in its unicameral parliament known as the Majlis.
In an attack on women's rights, Iran’s parliament has approved a harsh new compulsory hijab bill.— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) September 22, 2023
Women everywhere have the right to choose what to wear. pic.twitter.com/WAk3VWoiDE
Human rights organizations condemned the bill. “If approved by Iran’s Guardian Council, it will further exacerbate the already suffocating surveillance and policing of women’s bodies,” Amnesty International’s Dina Eltahawy warned. U.N. experts described the bill as “gender apartheid.” It violated fundamental rights, including the “right to take part in cultural life, the prohibition of gender discrimination, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to peaceful protest, and the right to access social, educational, and health services, and freedom of movement,” the experts charged.
The hijab has been a contentious issue since the Islamic Republic made it mandatory in 1981. But the dress code became a flashpoint in September 2022 after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police detention for alleged “improper” hijab. Her death triggered three months of nationwide protests. The protests grew from demands for more personal freedom to calls for the end of the theocracy. Security forces reportedly killed more than 500 people in a bloody crackdown. After the protests, more women still appeared in public across Iran without hijab.
The new bill was part of a renewed government effort to enforce the dress code after the protests subsided in early 2023. In April 2023, authorities began installing cameras in public places to identify and track unveiled women. In July 2023, the morality police resumed patrols nationwide after several months of a lower profile.
Key provisions included:
- Increased penalties for individuals and businesses promoting or allowing nudity or bad clothing, including imprisonment, fines, profit forfeiture, bans on travel abroad, and bans on online activity
- New penalties for public figures or celebrities, including fines, bans on professional activities for up to five years, travel bans, and bans on online activities – with more severe penalties for repeated offenses
- New fines for importing, producing or selling prohibited clothing
- Expanded gender segregation in universities, workplaces, hospitals, parks, and beaches
- New responsibility for the Ministry of Information, the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization, and the Intelligence Organization of the Law Enforcement Command to identify individuals promoting the “culture of nudity, indecency, lack of hijab or bad clothing” and pass identifying information and photographs to the judiciary or police
- Expanded authority of intelligence organizations, the Basij and other security forces to directly confront women who do not conform with the dress code in public places, vehicles, businesses, and online
- Expanded the use of cameras to identify violators of the dress code
- New chastity and hijab observance qualifications for government employees and contractors
The bill added stiff penalties to Iran’s already tough penal code. Article 639, for example, says that individuals who establish or manage a place of “immorality or prostitution” can be sentenced from one to 10 years in prison. Government enforcement has fluctuated under conservative, centrist and reformist presidents. President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric elected in 2021, has been a vocal proponent of the Islamic dress code.
U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Statement by spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani on Sept. 22, 2023: “We deeply regret the Iranian parliament’s passing of the new Chastity and Hijab Bill which vastly increases jail terms and provides for crushing fines on women and girls who do not obey the compulsory dress code. In that context, the Bill also targets vague notions of promotion of “nudity” or “indecency”. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, reiterates that this draconian bill flagrantly flies in the face of international law, and that it must be shelved.
“Under this new, even stricter bill - which is now in its final stage of consideration before the Guardian Council - those flouting the country’s strict Islamic dress code on head coverings and modest clothing risk up to 10 years in jail. Under the same bill, those found in breach could also be flogged, as well as fined up to 360 million Iranian rials (USD 720). They also face travel restrictions and deprivation of online access. Under the previous legislation, such an offence carried a jail term of up to two months, or a fine of up to 500,000 Iranian rials (USD 1).
“The decree - which is fully named the Bill to Support the Family by Promoting the Culture of Chastity and Hijab - is both repressive and demeaning. Women and girls must not be treated as second class citizens. The authorities have a duty to respect, protect and fulfil – equally - the rights of all Iranians.
“Our Office urges the Iranian authorities to take steps to eliminate this and all other forms of gender-based discrimination, and to repeal all associated laws and practices.
“We also call on the authorities to abolish all regulations and procedures whereby specifically women’s behaviour in public is monitored, and to introduce laws and policies that enable women and girls to exercise their human rights, including their right to fully participate in public life, without fear of retribution and discrimination.
Press release on Sept. 1, 2023: UN experts* today expressed grave concern over a new draft law, currently under review in the Iranian parliament, which imposes a series of new punishments on women and girls who fail to wear the headscarf (hijab).
“The draft law could be described as a form of gender apartheid, as authorities appear to be governing through systemic discrimination with the intention of suppressing women and girls into total submission,” the experts said.
They stressed that the proposed “Bill to Support the Family by Promoting the Culture of Chastity and Hijab” and existing de facto restrictions are inherently discriminatory and may amount to gender persecution.
“The draft law imposes severe punishments on women and girls for non-compliance which may lead to its violent enforcement,” the experts said. “The bill also violates fundamental rights, including the right to take part in cultural life, the prohibition of gender discrimination, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to peaceful protest, and the right to access social, educational, and health services, and freedom of movement.”
The use of culture by the Iranian government as a tool to restrict the rights of women and girls is misplaced, the experts warned. “Culture is formed and evolves with the participation of all,” they said.
By using terms such as “nudity, lack of chastity, lack of hijab, bad dressing and acts against public decency leading to disturbance of peace”, the draft law seeks to authorise public institutions to deny essential services and opportunities to persons who fail to comply with compulsory veiling. Directors and managers of organisations who fail to implement the law could also be punished.
“The weaponisation of “public morals” to deny women and girls their freedom of expression is deeply disempowering and will entrench and expand gender discrimination and marginalisation, with wider negative consequences for children and society as a whole,” the experts said.
The morality police have also been reportedly redeployed in some areas since early July 2023, potentially to enforce compulsory veiling requirements.
“After months of nationwide protests over the death of Jina Mahsa Amini and against restrictive veiling laws, the authorities have introduced a tiered system of punishments targeting women and girls,” the experts said. “The punishments include deprivation of a range of basic freedoms and social and economic rights, which will disproportionately affect economically marginalised women,” they said.
The Chastity and Hijab bill was submitted to parliament by the Government and the judiciary on 21 May 2023. Since then, it was amended several times, with the latest draft significantly increasing the number of punishments for non-compliance. On 13 August 2023, parliament voted in favour of invoking Article 85 of the Constitution which allows a parliamentary committee to review legislation without public debate.
“We urge authorities to reconsider the compulsory hijab legislation in compliance with international human rights law, and to ensure the full enjoyment of human rights for all women and girls in Iran,” the experts said.
Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Dina Eltahawy on Sept. 21, 2023: “This bill is a despicable assault on the human rights of women and girls that will further entrench violence and discrimination against them in Iran. If approved by Iran’s Guardian Council, it will further exacerbate the already suffocating surveillance and policing of women’s bodies and require the Islamic Republic’s various political, security and administrative arms to obsessively observe compliance with compulsory veiling laws and control women’s and girls’ lives.
“The Iranian authorities are doubling down on punishments against women and girls who claim their human rights to freedom of expression, religion, belief and bodily autonomy. This all-out assault is part of the authorities’ ongoing efforts to crush the spirit of resistance among those who dared to stand up against decades of oppression and inequality as part of the ‘Woman Life Freedom’ popular uprising.
“States must urgently call on the Iranian authorities to revoke the bill and abolish all degrading and discriminatory compulsory veiling laws and regulations. They must also pursue legal pathways at the international level to hold Iranian officials accountable for ordering, planning and committing such widespread and systematic violations against women and girls.”
Center for Human Rights in Iran
Deputy Director Jasmin Ramsey on Sept. 20, 2023: “The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is trampling the rights and freedoms of all women and girls in Iran by criminalizing freedom of expression. This includes the countless brave women who continue to risk their lives in peaceful defiance against the state’s forced-hijab law by appearing unveiled in public.”
“One year after the killing in state custody of Mahsa Jina Amini soon after she was arrested for alleged improper hijab, not one Iranian official has been held accountable, not for her death nor the killings of hundreds of protesters who rose up this past year. Instead, all women in Iran are being subjected to collective punishment.
“The parliament of the Islamic Republic has again displayed to the world that like the old men who rule over Iran through force, they are neither interested in nor accountable for the rights and demands of the people of Iran. Their only aim is to maintain their power.”