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Source: DW

Nov 23, 2023

Iran's women defend themselves against state violence

Violence and discrimination against women in Iran is rooted in the Islamic Republic's state structure. Those in power are now being challenged by a women's rights movement spurred by resistance to wearing headscarves.

By Shabnam von Hein

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is observed every year on November 25. Launched by feminist activists in 1981, the day draws attention to the various forms of violence that women face.

In Iran, little is said officially about this day. When Iranian media takes up the topic of "violence against women," the focus is usually placed on violence against women in Western countries, where people supposedly live without the protection of religion.

They refer to statistics that ostensibly indicate a much higher level of violence against women than in Iran.

However, statistics on violence against women in Iran are difficult to find and are often incomplete.

Many forms of violence against women in Iran are not even recorded, for example, the forms of violence experienced daily by women at the hands of the Iranian state.

Iran's power apparatus the biggest danger facing women

"The greatest danger for women in Iran comes from the state," Iranian legal and religious scholar Sedigheh Vasmaghi told DW.

The 62-year-old lawyer from Tehran is one of the most prominent critics of the Islamic Republic. For many years, she was the only woman to teach at the Faculty of Theology at Tehran University. Her critical attiude is a thorn in the side of those in power in Tehran.

Vasmaghi particularly criticizes regulations that are based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law. "These laws legitimize the use of violence against women and thus give it a legal basis," she said.

The lawyer cites an example of this in a new draft law on compulsory headscarves, along with all other strict measures regarding a dress code for women, "which are enforced with naked violence on a large scale in public."

Vasmaghi, who lived in Germany between 2011 and 2017, and worked as a visiting professor at the University of Göttingen, wrote an open letter to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, in April 2023.

In the letter, she questions the hijab from a theological perspective. According to her, the Islamic Republic's hijab laws have no basis in the Quran.

Punishing women who break these rules, Vasmaghi warned, has social, political and psychological consequences. Such punishments have violated the dignity of women and exacerbated social polarization.

At the end of September, Iran's Parliament passed a controversial dress code reform for women, which stipulates drastic penalties for violations, especially of the headscarf requirement.

Repeated violations could even result in prison sentences of up to 15 years. In addition, the publication of photos of women without headscarves on the internet is punishable, for example, by being barred from leaving the country. The judiciary has threatened to close shopping malls, restaurants and museums if violations are found.

Iranian women who disobey dress code live in fear

For many women who are tired of conforming and constantly wearing the headscarf, this means they live their daily lives in constant fear of being attacked or even beaten to death.

Since the tragic death of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody in September 2022, and the subsequent nationwide protests, many women have nevertheless refused to wear the headscarf in public.

Hossein Jalali, a member of the parliamentary culture committee, has said the headscarf represents the "flag of the Islamic Republic" for women. This symbolizes the state's discrimination against women, which is also reflected in laws and jurisdiction, inheritance law, contract law, freedom of travel and much more.

"In Iran, violence against women is a continuum," Iranian sociologist Azadeh Kian told DW. Kian lives in Paris and is director of the Center for Gender and Feminist Studies at the University of Paris.

Kian has studied the women's movement in Iran for a long time. "State violence in public is continued in domestic violence," said Kian. "If a woman in Germany or France is a victim of violence at home, she turns to the police. In Iran, the police use violence against women," she added.

In confidential conversations with DW, Iranian women who have appeared in public without their headscarves spoke about the stress they are exposed to.

A 50-year-old woman from the capital Tehran described her experience when she was caught on camera without a headscarf.

"I dropped my headscarf in my car. The surveillance cameras caught me, and my car was confiscated. But the worst thing was how rudely the vice squad spoke to me and allowed themselves to shout at me," referring to the Guidance Patrol or "morality police" which enforces Sharia-Islamic law in Iran.

Other women spoke of similar experiences, emphasizing that the "morality police" often turn up unexpectedly and try to intimidate women with violence and brutality.

Small changes in Iran towards women's rights

"This violence will not intimidate women," says Iranian legal and religious scholar Vasmaghi.

"As a member of this society, I am observing a profound change. Belief in the hijab and the headscarf is dwindling even among many religious people, both women and men. I see more and more religious women who no longer wear the headscarf in their own circles and are supported by their husbands," she added.

Sociologist Kian also sees signs of change in Iranian society. "When women experience violence on the street, sometimes men now step in front of them and protect them."

She finds it remarkable that these changes can be seen not only happening in the traditionally more liberal capital Tehran, but also throughout the country.

There are now also restaurant and store owners who would rather close their businesses than implement the ban on serving unveiled women.

"These men and women are part of a resistance that is creating women's rights not in the law, but in the public sphere."

This article has been translated from German

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