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Iranian women wearing hijab walk down a street in the capital Tehran on February 7, 2018. A spate of unprecedented protests against Iran's mandatory headscarves for women have been tiny in number, but have still reignited a debate that has preoccupied the Islamic republic since its founding.   © 2018 ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities should release and quash the convictions of all activists who have been prosecuted for peacefully protesting the country’s compulsory hijab laws, Human Rights Watch said today. In the past week, the authorities arrested two activists – a mother and daughter – for protesting compulsory hijab laws.

Iranian officials have prosecuted at least half a dozen activists for their peaceful opposition to compulsory hijab laws. On March 2, 2019, a court in Tehran sentenced Vida Mohavedi – who sparked a movement when she took off her headscarf to protest compulsory hijab on December 27, 2017 – to a year in prison, her lawyer told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on April 14. On April 10, police arrested Yasaman Ariyani, a 23-year-old activist, at her home in Karaj, a source told Human Rights Watch. On April 11, the source said, authorities also arrested Ariyani’s mother, Monireh Arabshahi, when she went to the prosecutor’s office in Tehran to ask about her daughter.

“It is ridiculous that the Iranian authorities are arresting and prosecuting women for protesting against discriminatory dress code laws,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately release these women’s rights activists and reform these outmoded and discriminatory laws.”

In December 2017 and January 2018, several women took their headscarves off while standing on electric utility boxes across the country to protest the law that requires that all women cover their hair. They became known as “the Girls of Revolution Street” and since then women have continued to protest the law across the country. The authorities have responded with arrests and prosecutions.

Ariyani has been active in the White Wednesday Campaign, a social media initiative by Masih Alinejad, a Brooklyn-based activist who opposes compulsory hijab in Iran, and has been the target of state-sponsored smear campaigns. The source said that an official at the prosecutor’s office told Ariyani that her arrest stemmed from a protest on International Women’s Day, March 8, when she and her mother gave flowers to women wearing the chador, a full black robe, to encourage solidarity against compulsory hijab. She had earlier been arrested during a protest against Iran’s deteriorating economic situation on August 2, 2018 in Tehran and spent several months in prison.

Mohaved became the iconic woman of the “Girls of Revolution Street” after her first arrest over her December 27, 2017 protest. She was arrested again on October 29, 2018 after she stood without her headscarf holding balloons on Enghelab square in Tehran. Branch 1109 of Tehran’s [Islamic] Guidance Judicial Complex, which adjudicates crimes against public morals, sentenced Movahedi to a year in detention for encouraging corruption and prostitution during her October 2018 protest, her lawyer said on April 14.

Movahedi’s lawyer said that she was should have been released on under Ayatollah Khamenei’s amnesty decree for Eid al-Mab'ath, the anniversary of the day Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad began his prophecy and mainly celebrated by the Shi’a community. However, it appears that authorities are delaying her release.

Iranian authorities have prosecuted several other women who took off their headscarves to protest compulsory hijab. They have also targeted other activists, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer; her husband, Reza Khandan; and Farhad Meysami, another human rights defender for their peaceful efforts to oppose the compulsory hijab law.

On March 11, Khandan announced on his Facebook account that the court of first instance sentenced Sotoudeh to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes for seven crimes. She is currently serving a five-year prison sentence she received in absentia in November 2016. If the court of appeals upholds the first instance sentence, Sotoudeh will serve her sentences concurrently, and would have to serve a total of 12 years in prison.

On January 22, the lawyer who represents Khandan and Meysami told IRNA news agency that Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court has sentenced them both to six years in prison on charges of assembly and collusion to act against national security and propaganda against the state, mainly for his peaceful activism against compulsory hijab laws.

Iran has a long history of imposing rules about what women can and cannot wear, in violation of their fundamental rights. In the 1930s, Reza Shah, then the ruler, prohibited women from wearing the hijab and police were ordered to forcibly remove women’s headscarves. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, in the early 1980s Iranian authorities imposed a mandatory dress code requiring all women to wear the hijab.

The compulsory dress code violates women’s rights to private life, personal autonomy, and freedom of expression, as well as to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience. It is also a form of gender-based discrimination prohibited under international law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iran has ratified, guarantees people’s right to freedom of expression, to privacy, and to freedom of religion. Several UN independent experts have criticized rules that require wearing religious dress in public. The late Asma Jahangir, a former UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, had said that the “use of coercive methods and sanctions applied to individuals who do not wish to wear religious dress or a specific symbol seen as sanctioned by religion” indicates “legislative and administrative actions which typically are incompatible with international human rights laws.”

Human Rights Watch opposes both policies of forced veiling and blanket bans on the wearing of religious dress as disproportionate and discriminatory interference with basic rights.

Human Rights Watch has opposed France’s blanket ban on full-face veils, as well as the ban on Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols in state schools, as a violation of human rights.

Human Rights Watch has also opposed laws and policies in other countries such as Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan under Taliban rule, for forcing women to cover their hair, body, and sometimes even their face, because these restrictions deny them their right to personal autonomy and their rights to freedom of expression, belief, and religion.

“It is time for Iranian authorities to recognize that women in Iran and elsewhere are free to dress as they please,” Fakih said. “This includes deciding whether to wear a headscarf or not, no matter what those in power think.”

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