Iranians urge action over 'gender apartheid' after hijab bill passes

Women face long prison terms and travel ban under new legislation, while children could also be barred from leaving Iran

Iranian women, some without the mandatory headscarf, on in a street in Tehran. EPA
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The international community must act against Tehran, Iranian activists said after the passage of a bill that punished women for flouting the country's strict dress code, which has been in place since the Islamic revolution.

The hijab and chastity bill passed by parliament on Wednesday – yet to be approved by Iran's Guardian Council – is expected to usher in further restrictions against millions of women in the country.

Under the legislation, women will now face up to 10 years in prison for not wearing the hijab in public. Social media users can be banned from leaving the country for two years for mocking the hijab, while business owners could face the same punishment for serving women who are not wearing it.

The call comes as President Ebrahim Raisi meets with world leaders in New York, where the UN General Assembly is under way, a year after the largest anti-regime protests yet seen erupted throughout the country. His presence at the summit has prompted large protests.

"It's outrageous, absolutely outrageous," Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, executive director of the Oslo-based NGO Iran Human Rights, told The National.

"It's unbelievable that it's possible to pass a law like this in 2023, by a country which is a member of United Nations, whose President shook hands with the UN Secretary General.

The bill is an attempt to "gradually restore" control lost by the regime during last year's protests and shows the extent of Tehran's desperation, Mr Amiry-Moghaddam said.

"It seems that they feel so threatened by Iranian women's civil disobedience that they are doing whatever it takes to stop it."

The bill, constituting more than 70 articles, has already been labelled as gender apartheid by UN experts and is being used by Tehran to broaden a crackdown on women, Mr Amiry-Moghaddam said.

"Iranian authorities have used different ways to crack down on women's activities against compulsory hijab [wearing]. From violently arresting them to issuing a prison sentence. However, they didn't have a proper 'hijab-related' charge, so they normally used collusion and attempts against state security.

"Since they see how big a problem the hijab issue has become, they want to make the crackdown on women more widespread and more efficient."

Women driving without the hijab will be fined under the new law, extending current measures that involve texting warnings to drivers and threatening to confiscate their vehicles.

Yasaman Choubeh, programme manager at United for Iran, says the law also threatens children under the age of 18 with a travel ban.

"This new bill changes everything," she told The National.

Ms Choubeh said it posed challenges for her legal team helping thousands of Iranian women deal with morality police patrols and the many rules they have to obey.

"They are trying to make fundamental changes to the structure of the government," she said, with detailed rules for every ministry to introduce over the next three months.

Ms Choubeh said of the travel ban penalty for children: "That's the kind of punishment political prisoners usually receive … how many children are going to flee the country without their parents?"

The legislation is expected to affect almost every area of public and private life, with TV networks told to broadcast programmes promoting the hijab and chastity. Even children's toys will have to abide with regulations.

Under current legislation, women face a prison sentence of up to two months, as well as a fine, for not wearing the hijab.

"It is very important that the international community shows a proper reaction to the gender-apartheid regime," Mr Amiry-Moghaddam added, saying western powers should summon Iranian envoys over the bill.

"I don't think issuing such a law against another specific group of society would have been acceptable to the international community. But it seems that the world tolerates such insane laws on women in Iran."


"The whole world should stand up against the Islamic Republic of Iran for just suggesting these laws," one woman in Iran told The National, preferring to stay anonymous for security reasons.

The law "includes rewriting the already reactionary and extreme education system to be more radical and more extreme. It includes each and every section of government. It's just wrong and inhumane", she added.

Iran's morality police enforce the dress code on Iran's streets, and the death of Mahsa Amini in their custody last year was the catalyst for the nationwide protests. Tehran was sanctioned for its ensuing crackdown in which more than 500 people were killed.

Women have long defied the strict rules Tehran places on them, including a ban on singing in public and riding a bicycle, despite being imprisoned for doing so. This has been amplified since the death of Ms Amini, with more and more women taking to the streets without a hijab.

The consequences of doing so have become more severe however, and women have also been barred from university for not wearing the hijab.

Others, including teachers, have taken to social media to report being fired for not covering their hair.

"Punishment is just one part of the situation," said Ms Choubeh.

"They are going to use schools, universities and mosques to promote the 'Islamic lifestyle.' So what does that mean?

"There are going to be extra classes … books may change. So it's not just about punishment. They are trying to change everything."

Updated: September 22, 2023, 11:08 AM