The issue of compulsory hijab in Iran and Afghanistan stands as a poignant testament to the complex intersection of cultural, religious, and political dynamics within these societies. Both countries have experienced distinct trajectories in their approach to veiling practices, including imposing mandatory head coverings and requirements for women to wear covered and loose dresses and long sleeves, amongst other directives. In Iran, the enforcement of hijab became a central component of the Islamic Republic’s policies following the 1979 Revolution, symbolizing the fusion of religious ideology with state governance. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the fluctuating landscape of hijab regulations has been closely tied to the changing political regimes, notably the Taliban’s return to power in 2021. The imposition of compulsory hijab in both Iran and Afghanistan has been utilized as a tool to regulate women’s bodies, limit their bodily autonomy, regulate women’s public presence, and restrict their social and political participation. In these environments, women consistently encounter threats of arrests, abductions, persecution, imprisonment, and even torture if they choose not to adhere to the mandatory hijab requirements. This shared thread of compulsory hijab underscores the ongoing struggles for women’s autonomy, religious expression, societal norms, and bodily rights in these countries.
The Case of Afghanistan
The 2004 constitution of Afghanistan did not enforce compulsory hijab for Afghan women; however, there existed intense societal pressure for women to adopt head coverings. Women retained the choice to cover or not, whether on television, in workplaces or during public occasions. Despite facing constant societal backlash, women in parts of the country actively contested these restrictions by wearing their chosen attire. The slow societal shift towards accepting women’s right to their bodies and to determine their clothing preferences was evident. Despite the persistent battle, small numbers of women began appearing on television, in sports stadiums, and at public events without obligatory head coverings. This gradual transformation reflected the ongoing struggle for women’s autonomy and their right to make independent decisions regarding their appearance. Amidst all the social obstacles and the Taliban’s continued targeted attacks on women, there was hope for progress.
However, women’s rights saw a severe regression after Afghanistan’s handover to the Taliban in August 2021. As warned by the Afghan human rights community and women human rights defenders during the peace process, the Taliban reverted to their 1990s policies, initiating harsh oppression of women. In their initial days in power, they replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, mandated to protect women’s rights, with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, responsible for imposing restrictions on women’s hijab and free movement. Subsequently, the Taliban imposed over 65 edicts explicitly targeting women’s rights and freedoms, including the right to choose their outfits.
The Taliban have gone to extreme lengths, restricting women’s access to life-saving services, including health services, based on their compliance with compulsory hijab requirements. This oppressive policy manifests in various public spaces, such as markets, restaurants, and public service offices, where women face harassment for not adhering to hijab requirements. In distressing instances, women are subjected to severe physical violence as a consequence of their choice to defy these restrictive regulations.
In the most recent incidents, the Taliban have initiated mass arrests of women in different parts of the capital, Kabul, for not adhering to compulsory hijab requirements. Reports indicate that families of some of these women have been forced to pay fines to the Taliban., while others remain in Taliban detention.
A woman who spoke to Rukhshana media shared: “Five of us were confined in a small, dim, and extremely unclean room with only a tiny window. We remained there for three days and nights until our families located us.”
The imposition of such restrictions aligns with the Taliban’s ideology, asserting that women are deemed inferior to men and should have no presence in public life. In interviews, Taliban officials have explicitly stated that these mass arrests serve as a deterrent, intended to set an example for other women to comply with compulsory hijab requirements. The arrests began in the predominantly Hazara area of Kabul, Dasht-e-Barchi. Hazara women reported that while in detention, they were subjected to severe mistreatment. They described incidents where their hair was forcibly pulled, they were kicked, and derogatory remarks were made, such as, “You Hazara women are whores. You don’t know the difference between your husband and a stranger.”
The Taliban have largely disregarded calls from the UN special rapporteur for Afghanistan, UNAMA, international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, and the general public in this regard, persisting in their harassment and abuse of women. Lack of accountability for their grave human rights violations and the international community’s continued unconditional engagement and appeasement of the Taliban have emboldened them to escalate their attacks on women with impunity.
The case of Iran
Seventeen months have passed since the inception of the Women, Life, Freedom Movement in Iran, sparked by the tragic death of Mehsa Amini while in the custody of the Guidance Patrol. During this time, human rights organizations reported at least 500 protestors were killed and over 22 thousand individuals arrested. Furthermore, civil activists and ordinary citizens have faced severe prison sentences, with 8 apprehended individuals executed. Additionally, both permanent and temporary bans have been placed on students attending educational institutions, and university professors have been dismissed. Now that the momentum of street protests has gradually declined, a renewed focus on women’s choices in clothing has emerged. Despite the past year’s widespread rejection of compulsory hijab by many women in major cities in acts of civil disobedience, the police forces persist in their harassment of women, employing various tactics to suppress dissent.
In the latest incident involving the suppression of women who chose not to wear the compulsory hijab while walking in public and gaining widespread attention on social media, Roya Heshmati faced the penalty of 74 lashes. She was arrested on April 21, 2023, enduring 11 days of detention after her image without the compulsory hijab was shared on social media. Charged with four offenses, including “appearing in public without proper religious hijab, causing public chastity injury, producing obscene content, and promoting corruption,” Roya Heshmati received a sentence of 13 years and 9 months in prison, accompanied by a fine of 1 million and 250 thousand Tomans, and the punishment of 74 lashes. While her prison sentence was nullified upon appeal, the fine and whipping sentences were upheld. On January 3, 2024, the whipping sentence was executed specifically for the charge of causing public chastity injury. The revelation of this whipping sentence on online platforms triggered a significant wave of outcry and compelled the judiciary branch to respond, maintaining that the execution of the whipping sentence adhered to legal standards.
Amidst the comprehensive efforts to enforce the government’s preferred lifestyle in the society, the Iranian Cyber Police (FATA) has been imposing censorship on virtual space and social networks. This includes blocking the pages of influencers and public figures who create content without adhering to the compulsory hijab requirements or showcasing lifestyles outside the prescribed norms by the Islamic Republic. In recent months, numerous Iranian influencers have experienced the blocking of their Instagram pages, some of which had followers numbering more than a million.
All these arbitrary actions transpired while the Council of Guardians, first in October and again in December 2023, returned the “Hijab and Chastity” bill to the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Iranian Parliament) for amendments. The bill, initially proposed in May 2023 by the judiciary and subsequently delivered to the government, garnered trial implementation approval from 152 representatives in September of the same year. It outlines severe penalties for non-compliance with the compulsory hijab, ranging from imprisonment and restrictions on movement to work bans and substantial financial fines. The bill not only intensifies punishments and fines for women but also extends its reach to businesses that serve women without enforcing the compulsory hijab.
Despite the non-implementation of the “Hijab and Chastity” bill, reports from various cities in Iran highlight increasing pressures on businesses to conform to hijab standards. Coffee shops, restaurants, cinemas, festivals, sports complexes, exhibitions, tourism and entertainment centers, libraries, art centers, hotels, hair salons, shops, and even hospitals and clinics are reportedly facing stringent enforcement, with some forced to deny services to “poorly” veiled or non-veiled women. Many businesses and service offices find themselves compelled to refuse services to women not adhering to the compulsory hijab to avoid fines and continue their operations. Additionally, actresses and sportswomen who participated in last year’s protests and chose not to observe the compulsory hijab have been banned from working.
The government and law enforcement agencies, under the guise of serving the economic viability of various businesses, target non-veiled women. Simultaneously, the extensive practice of stopping citizens’ cars for hijab violations serves as their revenue-generating tactic. In recent months, police impounded hundreds of vehicles, the release process for which is tied to the payment of fines, imposing not only financial costs but also the emotional toll of dealing with such punitive measures on individuals. Consequently, a campaign has emerged in recent days, collecting over 34,000 signatures from Iranian citizens so far, urging the cancellation of the Ministry of Interior’s hijab-related instructions.
Despite the challenges and setbacks posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, women in both countries persist in their resistance and advocacy for the fundamental right to freedom of clothing as their most undeniable right. The United Nations and other international organizations are urged to support and defend Iranian and Afghan women in their challenging quest for equality and human rights. These organizations must fulfill their duties in defending human rights more seriously and demand accountability from governments violating such rights.
Recommendations to Key Governments, UN, and INGOs
- The UN, key governments, and international human rights organizations must advocate for protecting individual freedom in choosing attire, including the right to wear or not wear the hijab, aligning with international human rights standards.
- The UN, key governments, and international human rights organizations must address discriminatory practices linked to compulsory hijab, emphasizing the need to ensure gender equality and eliminate barriers that affect women’s opportunities and choices.
- The UN and key governments must hold governments accountable for violating the bodily rights of women through imposing compulsory hijab requirements, advocating for accountability mechanisms, and imposing consequences for governments that infringe upon these fundamental rights.
- The UN and key governments must actively engage with grassroots civil society organizations and collectives advocating for women’s rights concerning compulsory hijab. They should provide support and amplify the voices of those directly affected.
- International human rights organizations must raise awareness and advocate for justice on behalf of women persecuted for not adhering to compulsory hijab requirements.
- International human rights organizations must systematically document cases of violations, gather evidence, and produce comprehensive reports highlighting the human rights abuses associated with the imposition of compulsory hijab. These organizations should actively share these reports with relevant stakeholders in the UN and governments to raise awareness, prompt action, and advocate for protecting individual freedoms and rights.