Shirin Ebadi: Iranian Law “Deliberately Silent” on the Hijab to Leave Room for Harsh Sentencing
Iranian law is deliberating vague about the hijab to leave room for harsh sentencing against those who refuse to cover themselves according to Islamic tradition, Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“The criminal codes mention the hijab in general terms but do not provide precise descriptions of what it is,” Ebadi told CHRI in an interview on March 7, 2018.
“I believe the laws are deliberately silent on the hijab to give the courts a free hand to punish women in any way they wish,” added the formerly Tehran-based human rights lawyer who now lives in exile.
Without mentioning her by name, Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi announced on March 7 that Narges Hosseini had been sentenced to 24 months in prison—21 months suspended for five years—for the charges of “encouraging people to corruption through removing the hijab in public” and “committing a forbidden act in a public space.”
Dowlatabadi criticized the suspended portion of the sentence and said his office would officially object to it, reported the judiciary’s official news agency, Mizan.
Hosseini’s lawyer, prominent human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, told CHRI on March 10 that the charges against her client were illegal.
“My client’s action pertains to Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code. But the court has unlawfully accused her of violating Article 639,” said Sotoudeh.
“Besides that, even Article 638 itself is unconstitutional because the right to choose your clothing is one of the most basic concepts of freedom, which the Constitution respects for women and men equally.”
All women in Iran are forced to cover the skin on their bodies (excluding the face) and their hair when they are in public. This rule was gradually imposed after the country’s 1979 revolution by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Women who fail to cover themselves in public could be arrested, fined, lashed and imprisoned for committing “haram.”
According to Article 638 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code: “Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a harām [sinful] act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public prudency, they shall only be sentenced to 10 days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes.”
According to Article 639 of the Islamic Penal Code: “The following individuals shall be sentenced to one year to 10 years’ imprisonment… A – Anyone who establishes or directs a place of immorality or prostitution. B – Anyone who facilitates or encourages people to commit immorality or prostitution.”
No Consensus on Hijab
Speaking to CHRI on the phone from London, Ebadi said that despite the Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab policy, there is no consensus among Shiite theologians dictating that women must cover their hair in public.
“The Constitution says that the laws should be based on Sharia [Islamic Law] and of course Sharia is interpreted by the supreme leader and the six clerics he appoints to the Guardian Council,” she said.
“According to the interpretation of the supreme leader and the Guardian Council, the hijab is obligatory for women,” she added. “But on the other hand, many theologians have opposing views and believe that the hijab is a voluntary matter and the state has no right to punish women for not observing it.”
Since January 2018, at least 30 women and men have been arrested in Iran for removing their headscarves in various cities in the country. They have come to be known as the “Girls of Revolution Street.”
In addition to Hosseini, those who have been arrested include Vida Movahed, Azam Jangravi, Shima Babaei, Shaparak Shajarizadeh and Maryam Shariatmadari.
In late December 2017, young mother Movahed was the first woman in Iran to be arrested for removing her headscarf on a public street (Tehran’s Enghelab (Revolution) St.) and silently waving it on a stick like a flag.
She was released more than a month later.
Without mentioning her by name, Tehran Prosecutor Dowlatabadi said Movahed had been “diagnosed with mental illness” and “requires long-term medical treatment and psychiatric supervision.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has also described the anti-compulsory-hijab protests as “small and insignificant” and accused the protesters of being tricked by foreign countries without providing any evidence for his claim.
“They [enemies of Iran] spent all that money and created all that propaganda to trick a few girls into taking off their scarves but in the end what they got from all that effort was small and insignificant,” he said.
Despite being expected to toe the supreme leader’s line, not all politicians in Iran agree with Khamenei.
Nahid Tajeddin, a female member of the Iranian Parliament from the city of Isfahan, tweeted on March 2: “The Girls of Revolution St. are the same girls who have been stopped behind the gates of gender discrimination in university enrollment quotas, in the workplace, in political participation, in getting government management posts, in sports arenas, in performing live music on stage and…”
In February 2018, the office of President Hassan Rouhani released a government-conducted survey from 2014 showing that nearly half of all Iranians believed that wearing the hijab should be a personal choice.