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Source: Middle East Eye

Apr 6, 2023

New strategy includes denying unveiled women service at airports and restaurants, educational services, blocking phone lines and using surveillance cameras

By MEE correspondent in Tehran

In the small Iranian city of Shandiz, near the religious city of Mashhad, known as a stronghold for principlists, a man entered a shop saw two women not wearing the hijab. Angered by the sight of the women not abiding by the Islamic dress code, the man threw yoghurt at them, leaving them in shock.

Hours later, it was revealed that the attacker was a religious eulogist.

The incident, which took place on 31 March, is the latest in a series of developments that have once again raised tensions in Iran regarding the issue of the mandatory hijab, as many young women continue to defy the country's Islamic law. 

Many Iranians criticised the attack on social media, calling it a significant "danger" that needs to be addressed. 

Ehsan Alikhani, a popular television host, made a reference to the danger of throwing acid, and said that people should be grateful that only yoghurt was used in this instance. He added that if such actions are not decisively dealt with, they could create chaos in the country.

Alikhani emphasised that the incident is the "most minor result" of the "violence" that is deeply rooted in the statements of some hardliners against young women who choose not to wear hijabs.

Reacting to the attack, renowned legal scholar Mohsen Borhani wrote on Twitter that any action taken against these women beyond verbal remarks is illegal and a criminal offence, adding that in such situations, they "have the right to legitimate defence" according to the law.

Surprisingly, even some conservatives have spoken out against the attack.

The leader of Friday prayers in Ardebil city, Hassan Ameli, said that this "wrong move" should not be associated with religion and that "religion does not tell you to do this".

However, hardline newspaper Kayhan, which is considered to be the mouthpiece of conservatives and the Islamic Republic establishment, on Tuesday wrote that what is "worse than the man who threw yoghurt was the action of the two women who insulted the law, religious beliefs and moral foundations of society by not wearing the hijab."

Meanwhile, the judiciary has issued an arrest warrant for the attacker and the two women for flouting the hijab law.

'What are you afraid of?'

In recent weeks, principlists in Iran have been ramping up their rhetoric against women who choose not to wear hijab.

The issue has become increasingly contentious since September, when a 22-year-old woman died in the custody of the morality police after she was arrested for not "properly" wearing the hijab. Mahsa's Amini's death led to months-long widespread protests, in which hundreds were killed.

As a result, deciding not to wear the hijab has become a symbol of resistance and defiance against the Islamic Republic's dress code.

Many young women are now walking in the streets and public places without wearing headscarves, a sight that has become more common as the weather becomes warmer. With the arrival of spring, a large number of women are not wearing the hijab, which has made principlists increasingly worried.

Supporters of principlists and ultra-conservatives have been holding gatherings in front of government buildings and urging the establishment to deal with the situation.

On Sunday, a group of ultra-conservatives stood in front of the governor of Mazandaran, a province in northern Iran, and told him: "If you cannot do something, we will do it. All the restaurants in the city are open and all the [girls] are [almost] naked."

Meanwhile, in a speech in Qom, broadcast by state TV, Naser Rafiee Mohammadi, a principlist cleric, addressed the establishment, saying: "Why have you easily gone along with this issue? What are you afraid of?"

No service to women

Under principlist President Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian government has recently shown its resolve to maintain the country's strict dress code for women.

In response to the recent wave of women defying the hijab laws, the government issued a statement declaring that it will neither retreat nor compromise on the issue.

To indirectly pressure women into compliance with the dress code, the government has been taking action against businesses that allow women to enter without a headscarf.

Women football fans wave Iranian national flags as they cheer for their national team during the friendly football match between Iran and Russia at Azadi Stadium in Tehran on 23 March 2023. (AFP)

In recent weeks, many stores, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants have been closed down by the government and the establishment, with their owners saying they were informed it was because they had allowed women without hijab on their premises. 

"It is not legal for the government or the judiciary to blame the manager over a woman's lack of hijab and shut the place down," a lawyer, who did not want her name to be revealed, told Middle East Eye.

Recent reports have emerged of government officials denying women the right to board flights in some airports across the country.

In a video circulating on social media, officials at Shiraz airport in Iran's southwest can be seen informing women that they will not be allowed to board their flights unless they comply with the hijab laws.

The officials were heard saying that they will not "provide service" to women who do not wear a headscarf, and as a result, will not issue boarding passes. 

The controversial plan

Denying service at airports is part of a series of punishments laid down in a plan prepared by the principlist-dominated parliament to deal with women who do not abide by the hijab law.

The plan specified seven areas where violations would be registered as follows: inside cars; indoor locations such as restaurants, government offices and organisations; educational centres; universities; airports and terminals; the street, and online.

Lawbreakers would be handed fines ranging between five million ($118) and 30 billion rials ($720,000). Furthermore, women who do not comply with warnings will have their phone lines and internet blocked.

Other punishments outlined in the plan include the revocation of driver's licences and passports.

On Monday, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology warned on the first day of the reopening of schools and university that students who do not observe the hijab will be denied "educational services".

The plan has been met with a backlash on social networks, with many warning of the repercussion of such moves.

A sociologist and women's rights activist, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, warned that any extreme or harsh actions by the government and the establishment are likely to lead to an equally harsh response.

"The women in Iranian society aren’t the women the Islamic Republic wants," she said.

"The real face of women in society can be seen in the streets. These women have been present for years and their presence has been ignored by the Islamic Republic."

The sociologist said the mandatory hijab law has had significant effects on Iranian society, whereby many Iranians choose to leave the country due to the strict dress code, which makes other places seem like "paradise" in comparison.

Despite Iran's rich cultural heritage, the sociologist noted that the freedom to choose whether or not to wear hijab has made Muslim countries like Turkey a desirable destination for some Iranian women seeking greater personal freedom.

Making women angrier

While parliament's plan has faced criticism, it seems like the establishment is willing to enforce it to a large extent even without lawmakers passing it.

Principlist MP Hossein Jalali said in late March that an agreement had been reached between the judiciary, the police, the interior ministry, the National Security Council, and parliament to implement the plan and enforce the Islamic dress code.

Jalali said under the new strategy, physical punishment will not be allowed and surveillance cameras will monitor women in public spaces, and those who break the hijab rule will be tracked down and punished afterward.

In a statement indicating at least a partial implementation of the parliamentary bill, Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, announced on Monday that the police will use "smart systems" to identify women without hijab and warn them via SMS. If individuals do not comply with the warnings, they will be summoned to court, he said.

Most notably, in comments on the hijab issue, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday said: "The enemy has entered this issue with a plan, we must also enter it with a plan," adding "[wrong reactions] should not be done".

A reformist political commentator, who wished to remain anonymous, told MEE that he believed Tehran has come to a decision regarding the implementation of the recent bill.

According to the commentator, parliament would not pass it to avoid attracting negative reactions and angering women, and instead, the government would enforce it to a significant degree.

"In light of recent remarks made by Khamenei, it appears that the establishment will not utilise the morality police to get physically involved as they have in the past, but instead, they will rely on smart cameras placed around the city to pressure women to comply with the dress code," he said.

"Khamenei's new statement suggested that the government and the establishment have no intention of supporting physical interventions, such as the yoghurt incident.

"However, the plan is to rely on surveillance which is even more dangerous, potentially leading Iran to resemble China, where everyone is officially under surveillance."

The commentator, however, said he does not believe the establishment would succeed.

"The new Iran is completely different to pre-September Iran. It is enough for the officials to go out and realise this. Such plans would only make women angrier and lead them to defy them more," he said.

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