U.N. experts condemn jail terms for compulsory hijab protest

"[They] peacefully protested against Iran’s compulsory veiling laws and advocated for a woman’s right to choose whether or not to wear the hijab."

Muslim American women wearing hijab shop at the Balady halal supermarket ahead of the first day of Ramadan in Brooklyn, New York (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muslim American women wearing hijab shop at the Balady halal supermarket ahead of the first day of Ramadan in Brooklyn, New York
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A fellowship of United Nations human rights experts have condemned the Islamic Republic of Iran for handing out long jail terms to three Iranian women who protested the religious laws compelling women to wear religious hijab and modest attire.
Monireh Arabshahi, Yasamin Aryani, and Mojgan Keshavarz, who have been held in Iranian custody since April for "disrespecting compulsory hijab," have been sentenced by the Iranian Revolutionary Court to prison terms of at least 16 years each for disobeying the country's Islamic dress code.
“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,” the UN experts said in their statement.
The charges against the women stem from a video that was widely shared on social media in March, which was taken on International Women's Day. The video shows them without their headscarves, disseminating flowers to women on the metro in Tehran while discussing their views on the future of women's rights in Iran.
In the video, Aryani hands a flower to a woman wearing a hijab and says: "One day, I hope we can walk side by side in the street, me without the hijab and you with the hijab."
"[They] peacefully protested against Iran’s compulsory veiling laws and advocated for a woman’s right to choose whether or not to wear the hijab," the statement said.
Following the video's release, Aryani was arrested by Iranian security officials at her home in Tehran on April 10. The following day her mother, Monireh Arabshahi, was arrested after going to Vozara detention center in Tehran to inquire about her daughter's arrest. Keshavarz was arrested "by force" on April 25 at her family home in front of her nine-year-old daughter.
The women were each given five years on charges of "assembly and collusion to act against national security," one year for circulating "propaganda against the regime" and ten years for "encouraging and preparing the grounds for corruption and prostitution." In addition, Keshavarz received another seven-and-a-half years for "insulting the sanctities" - a total of 55 years and six months: 16 years each for Aryani and her mother, and 23.5 for Keshavarz.
“We call upon the Iranian authorities to quash these convictions and immediately release all human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for their work in advocating women’s rights, and to ensure full respect for the rights of women to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and non-discrimination," the experts said, adding that: "Respect and support for the activities of women human rights defenders are essential to the overall enjoyment of human rights."
The women were delivered the verdicts in the absence of their legal counsel, according to Iran Human Rights Monitor; legal counsel was also denied during certain stages of the indictment process, interrogations and even during the trial itself.
The global human rights organization Amnesty International condemned the arbitrary detainment of the three women and their denied access to legal counsel in an open letter to Head of the Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi earlier last month.
In addition, the monitor claimed that when Judge Mohammad Moqisseh initially presented the charges, he "abusively" stated to the women, "I will make you all suffer.” Qarchak, the prison where they are currently being held, is known to be one of the country's more menacing prisons due to "inhumane medical and psychological conditions." The facility – which was once used as a chicken farm – is now considered to be one of the largest and most dangerous prisons for women in Iran by many human rights organizations.
The US State Department also added its voice to the conversation, condemning the sentences as a "grave" violation of human rights, and asking all nations to castigate the charges against the women.
"We condemn the Iranian regime for sentencing Yasaman Aryani, Monireh Arabshahi, and Mojgan Keshavarz to 55 years in prison for protesting compulsory hijab laws while simply handing out roses. We urge all nations to condemn this grave violation," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus wrote in a tweet on August 14.
According to human rights reports and monitors, since January 2018, at least 32 people have arrest for protesting the compulsory hijab. According to Amnesty, another 55 people were detained for their work on women’s rights, including women who tried to enter football stadiums illegally and lawyers advocating for women.
“The Iranian authorities carried out a shameless campaign of repression during 2018, crushing protests and arresting thousands in a wide-scale crackdown on dissent,” Amnesty said. “Over the course of the year, more than 7,000 protesters, students, journalists, environmental activists, workers and human rights defenders – including lawyers, women’s rights activists, minority rights activists and trade unionists – were arrested, many arbitrarily.”
Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, women have been forced to cover their hair for the sake of modesty. Violators are publicly admonished, fined or arrested. There are also instructions for women clerks in many Tehran shopping centers to wear a  maghnaeh (black hood) instead of a simple hijab, or face the possible consequence of having their business shut down.
While there are no expressly written laws compelling women to wear hijab in Iran, following the the Islamic Revolution in 1979, government and religious officials have set their own standards of dress for the entire public – with many restrictions of dress and etiquette being targeted at women in particular.
“What the last year has shown is that people in Iran, especially women, are no longer afraid to go out and protest, whether in large numbers or through lone acts of protest,” Amnesty International’s Iran researcher Mansoureh Mills has said. “As the authorities try to clamp down on these peaceful acts of resistance, we are likely to see more and more women and men being arrested, detained and prosecuted for demanding their rights.”
According to the organization, protesters face “bitter backlash from the authorities, facing violent assault, arrest and torture and other ill treatment. Some were sentenced to prison terms after grossly unfair trials.”
Fourteen Iranian women's rights activists recently penned an open letter to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei requesting that he resign from his position after his 20-year tenure. They wrote that the country needs to undergo political change.
According to a report by Radio Farda, the letter, dated August 5, refers to "gender apartheid" and a "patriarchal approach" that for 40 years has stifled the Iranian political climate. They said that since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the situation in Iran has created an unfair disadvantage for women who want to live and thrive in the country.
"We, 14 civil rights and women's rights activists, are determined to continue our combat until victory through civil and non-violent measures," they wrote. "Like other pioneers [who were non-violent freedom fighters], we go ahead by chanting 'no to the Islamic Republic.'
"Four decades of this theocracy has eliminated the rights of half of the country's [population]," they continued.
One of the signatories of the open letter described above has already been arrested for political dissidence.