Iran gives three women 55 years in prison for defying Islamic dress code

They have been convicted of charges stemming from a video taken on International Women's Day that was widely shared on social media in March showing them without headscarves.

A woman wearing a hijab [Illustrative] (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A woman wearing a hijab [Illustrative]
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Monireh Arabshahi, Yasamin Aryani, and Mojgan Keshavarz, three women who have been held in Iranian custody since April of this year 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.
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.
In Iran, shorter sentences are normally assigned for extensive prison terms – similar to how parole works in the United States, where long prison terms are given, but sometimes with the eligibility for parole after a certain amount of time. These shorter sentences in Iran average about half of the original term.
The women were delivered the verdicts in the absence of their legal counsel, according to the 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 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 Arabshahi, Aryani and Keshavarz 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."
Subsequently 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 herself, was arrested "by force" on April 25 at her family home in front of her nine-year-old daughter.
"Their prosecution is part of a wider crackdown on women’s rights defenders campaigning against forced veiling laws.
"This movement includes White Wednesdays, a popular campaign which urges women to share pictures and videos of themselves on social media every Wednesday, wearing white headscarves or white pieces of clothing in protest of compulsory veiling; My Stealthy Freedom, which encourages women from Iran to post online pictures of themselves without headscarves [to show opposition to] forced veiling; and My Camera My Weapon, which aims to raise awareness of the constant harassment and assault that women and girls face in Iran’s streets as a result of forced veiling laws," said Amnesty.
Dozens of women activists as well as a few men have been arrested in relation to this "crackdown."
Just last week, 70 female cyclists were arrested in Tehran for violating the rules of "chastity and hijab."
IN A SIMILAR case a year ago, Azam Jangravi took off her hijab and waved it above her head while standing atop an electrical transformer in a busy Tehran square. It was an act of protest to denounce Iran’s strict Islamic laws that restrict women and general life in Iran, limiting her ability to live freely within her own country.
A crowd formed, and people shouted at her to come down. She knew all along that her arrest was imminent, but she went through with her plan anyway.
Her actions earned Jangravi a three-year prison sentence.
“I kept telling myself, ‘You can do this, you can do this,’” Jangravi recalled in an interview, carried by Reuters. “I was feeling a very special kind of power. It was as if I was not the secondary gender anymore.”
Even with the very real possibility of going to prison, Jangravi believed that going through with her protest would create a better world to live in for her daughter, who is now eight years old.
“I was telling myself, ‘Viana should not grow up in the same conditions in this country that you grew up in,’” she said. “[My mother] told me that the revolution caused a great deal of sexism, and they separated men and women.” Jangravi wanted a different fate for her daughter.
Her inspiration to go through with the protests came after two women activists were arrested on the same street for similar offenses.
“Throughout 2018, the Iranian authorities waged a particularly sinister crackdown against women’s-rights defenders,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director at Amnesty International. “Instead of cruelly punishing women for demanding their rights, the authorities should put an end to the rampant and entrenched discrimination and violence they face.”
After her protest, Jangravi was arrested, fired from her job at a research institute and sentenced to three years in prison for promoting indecency and willfully breaking Islamic law.
Authorities also threatened to take Jangravi’s daughter away from her.
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 "the Maghna'eh" instead of a simple hijab, or face the possible consequence of having their business shut down.
In July, it was reported by ILNA, an Iranian state-run news agency, that Iran had notified and warned 66,000 drivers in the Gilan Province via text message that female passengers in the targeted vehicles had dropped their veils at some point during the car-ride.
Jangravi was one of at least 39 women arrested last year in connection with hijab protests, according to Amnesty, which said 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.
Before her sentence was scheduled to begin Jangravi decided to flee the country, accompanied by her daughter, by employing the skills of a human-smuggler.
“I found a human-smuggler with a lot of difficulty. It all happened very quickly, I left my life, my house, my car behind,” she said.
Jangravi is not the first protester to voice an opinion on the “forced hijab laws.” Last year, many women took their peaceful protest against the strict dress code to the streets, holding their hijabs aloft high above the crowds for all to see.
Male and female protesters have been taking part in the “White Wednesday” protests, inviting both sexes to wear hijabs, veils and bracelets in solidarity with those who feel the law is discriminatory and unethical. “White Wednesday” is also for women who choose to wear their hijabs and veils, but reject the notion that all women should be forced to conform to wearing them in public.
“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,” said Amnesty International’s Iran researcher Mansoureh Mills. “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.”
Jangravi’s desperate attempt to leave the country after her arrest could easily be justified by reports from Amnesty of brutal treatment by Iranian prison guards.
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.”
Amnesty cited the case of Shaparak Shajarizadeh, who “was sentenced to 20 years in prison, 18 of which were suspended, for her peaceful protest against forced hijab. She fled Iran after she was released on bail and has since described in media interviews how she was subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in solitary confinement and denied access to her lawyer.”
It also noted that, “Nasrin Sotoudeh, the prominent human rights lawyer and women’s rights defender who represented Shaparak Shajarizadeh, was herself arrested on 13 June 2018 for defending protesters against forced hijab.”
Iran’s economy has faced instability recently, with the national currency, the rial, fluctuating in value, making it difficult for many Iranians to make ends meet.
Sporadic protests linked to the tough economic situation have been led by truck drivers, farmers, workers, merchants and teachers, occasionally resulting in violent confrontations with security forces.
“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.”
Iran’s economy has been particularly hard hit by US sanctions that were reimposed November 5, after the United States withdrew from the 2016 Iran nuclear deal in May.
Many of these workers were arrested, and some were threatened with the death penalty, for demanding better working conditions and higher wages.
“From underpaid teachers to factory workers struggling to feed their families, those who have dared to demand their rights in Iran today have paid a heavy price. Instead of ensuring workers’ demands are heard, the authorities have responded with heavy handedness, mass arrests and repression,” Amnesty’s Luther said.
Jangravi is now awaiting approval on a request for asylum from an undisclosed location outside of Iran.
“Of course we don’t expect everyone to climb up the platform in Revolution Street,” she said. “But this made our voices heard by the entire world. What we girls did made this movement into something that continues.”
Reuters contributed to this report.