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Source: Washington Post

Apr 25, 2024

Iran expands public crackdown on women and girls, sparking public anger

By Susannah George, Nilo Tabrizy and Jonathan Baran

With global attention focused on Iran’s escalating conflict with Israel, Tehran has intensified its domestic crackdown on women, giving police expanded powers to enforce conservative dress codes.

The new wave of repression appears to be one of the most significant efforts to roll back perceived social gains in the aftermath of the 2022 protest movement — a months-long uprising that challenged gender segregation and clerical rule. Some Iranians suspect the government is using fears of regional war as cover to tighten its grip at home; others say it’s just the latest salvo in a long-running campaign aimed at extinguishing all forms of dissent.

But the public backlash has been swift. In many instances, videos of women being violently detained showed crowds of bystanders gathering to support them. Now, authorities appear to be responding to pressure to curb their harsh tactics.

On Monday, Iran’s national police made a rare statement to local media about Operation Noor, its new campaign of hijab enforcement. A police spokesperson said that officers would not refer cases to the judiciary, potentially removing the threat of criminal charges for women who have been detained.

The unnamed spokesperson blamed “malicious media streams that seek to divide and polarize society” — an apparent reference to videos of police repression that have gone viral on social media.

The latest videos began emerging the same weekend that Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel. The Washington Post spoke to Iranians who have witnessed the crackdown and verified four videos of women being forcibly detained; in one from Tehran, posted April 16, security forces use a stun gun on a woman before dragging her off a city street and into a van.

A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York declined to comment for this story.

The police are not “backtracking,” but rather trying to find a way to carry out the crackdown with “less friction,” according to Tara Sepehri Far, a senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They don’t want another dead body on their hands,” she added — an allusion to Mahsa “Jina” Amini, a young Kurdish woman whose death in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” in 2022 was the spark for nationwide protests.

Dina Ghalibaf, a 23-year-old freelance journalist and university student, was detained by police at a metro station in Tehran on April 15.

“When I insisted that I pay my taxes and I have the right to use the metro, they violently took me to a room. They hit me with an electric shocker,” she wrote on X. “The whole time, they restrained my arms and one of the officers sexually assaulted me.”

The posts quickly went viral. When contacted by The Post the day she was released, Ghalibaf confirmed the account of her detention and agreed to speak in detail later that day.

But hours later, she was arrested again. This time she was sent to Iran’s notorious Evin prison and her social media accounts were taken down.

Her family was told she had been charged with “spreading disinformation, disobeying the police and disturbing the public,” according to a family friend who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Authorities offered to grant her bail this week, but demanded she sign a letter stating that her claims of sexual assault were untrue. When Ghalibaf refused, the offer was withdrawn, the family friend said.

The police announced the launch of Operation Noor in a video address on April 12, vowing to “legally deal with the violators” of the hijab law.

The law requires women to cover their hair and wear loose clothing that hides the shape of their body. Many Iranian women choose to wear a headscarf for religious or cultural reasons, and the law mandating hijab has strong support among the country’s conservatives. But many Iranians increasingly believe the headscarf should be a woman’s personal choice, not a government matter.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appeared to foreshadow the crackdown in a speech on April 3.

“I am sure that the women of our country, even those who are a little disobedient in the field of hijab, are attached to Islam, attached to the regime,” he said, addressing politicians and government officials in Tehran.

“They must observe this issue of hijab. Everyone must follow it.”

Yet Iranian authorities have struggled to enforce the law without triggering social unrest. The protests in 2022 were the most significant threat to Iran’s clerical rulers in decades. Hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces and thousands arrested.

While people retreated from the streets, many women continued to appear in public uncovered — a small but meaningful act of defiance that would once have been unthinkable. Iran’s morality police started to adopt a lower profile, operating without uniforms and using unmarked vehicles.

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In the months that followed, though, a “prevailing view” emerged within Iran’s clerical leadership that the country needed “a comprehensive system of enforcement” of the hijab law, Far said. “Because giving up the enforcement would be seen as giving up ground to the opposition.”

The government tried to apply economic pressures: using traffic cameras to fine women without headscarves and denying women accused of violating the law the ability to work or pursue education. Businesses accused of serving or employing women who defied dress codes were shuttered.

But some women and girls remained undaunted.

“Us Iranian women have gotten to a point where it’s either death or freedom for us,” said a 40-year-old woman from Tehran. “We will pay any price, but we won’t go back to what life was before” the uprising.

“If we wear hijab, it’s as if the blood of those [killed in the protests] are at our feet,” she said.

Though new cases of police violence last year sparked outrage online, they did not lead to public demonstrations. On the anniversary of Masha Amini’s death in September, Iranian security forces were deployed across the country to prevent rallies. The rollout of Operation Noor, however, could be a new inflection point.

Several Iranians interviewed by The Post reported larger numbers of police on the streets and visibly harsher treatment of women and girls. They spoke on the condition that they be identified by their first names for fear of reprisals.

“Before this current wave, if someone was not wearing a hijab or wearing a short dress, they would warn them verbally. But this time is completely different,” said Parsa, a 24-year-old man from Tehran, who said he saw officers attack a woman outside his office.

He tried to intervene, he said, but was pulled away from the scene by men in plain clothes and beaten. When a crowd began to gather, the police released him and the woman who had been detained. As they walked away, one of the officers yelled, “Let them go, just take their pictures,” he recalled.

His account could not be independently confirmed, but it aligns with videos and other reports from Iran in recent weeks.

“It is way more strict and more violent than before, he said. “It is as if they have gone back in time 10 years.”

Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director at the Washington-based Independent Center for Human Rights in Iran, said the reports coming out of the country were likely just a small sample of what appears to be a far-reaching crackdown.

“These girls are being pushed into vans without doing anything and [with] no chance of due process,” she said. “Anything can happen to them, as we have seen in the past. This extreme form of violence against women being perpetuated by the state is extremely dangerous.”

Fatemeh, a 20-year-old university student, told The Post she was grabbed by police this month but managed to escape before being pulled into a nearby van. It has only made her more resolute.

“When you see other people fighting like you, you get braver and more determined on your path,” she said. “I have not really observed that much fear. ... People might have more rage.”

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