The cameras that monitor traffic in Tehran and the rest of the cities in Iran have a new task since last Saturday, April 15: to capture images of women who do not wear veils to unleash the weight of the law against them. Not even 24 hours had elapsed since these cameras —or others that the authorities say they are installing— took over this task, Sara, the fictitious name (for security reasons) of a 50-year-old woman, received a message on her mobile. From the Iranian capital, she explains to this newspaper that her text warned her that she had been caught without a hijab and that if she reoffended, she would end up in court. Article 638 of the Iranian Penal Code punishes this “crime” with fines and up to two months in prison. If there is a recidivism, also with up to 74 lashes. Many Iranian women tried in recent years for not wearing headscarves have themselves been charged with more serious charges, such as inciting prostitution and attacking state security, which carry long prison terms.
Last weekend, the Iranian authorities closed 150 shops because some of their employees were not wearing headscarves; they sent 3,500 messages to companies for that reason and identified “hundreds” of women with bare hair in their cars, police spokesman Said Montazer al-Mahdi told the state news agency IRNA. This spokesman alluded to the fact that 16% of the women who appeared in the images of the cameras violated the hijab law, “an involuntary recognition” of “the generalized disobedience” to that rule by “thousands of Iranians”maintains the Iran Critical Threats platform, of the American conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.
Since a 22-year-old Kurdish girl, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody on September 16 after being arrested for wearing the hijab improperly, many Iranians have dispensed with the garment as a wave of protests against the regime rocked the country with a eloquent motto: “Woman, life, freedom”. The repression of the demonstrations by the security forces and paramilitaries caused at least 500 deaths and the arrest of more than 22,000 people, calculate Iranian human rights organizations in exile.
Police violence quelled the protests, but the desire for change in Iran is still clearly visible in all those women who take to the streets without veils. This act of peaceful disobedience, which was marginal before the death of young Amini, is a deep-seated political reproach to the Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made the hijab “one of its pillars” and the “symbol of the imposition of Islamic morality,” says University of Tennessee professor Saeid Golkar via WhatsApp from the United States.
The head of Tehran’s traffic police, General Mohamad Hossein Hamidi, was the one who acknowledged early last week to the Tasnim agency —a outlet affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s parallel army— that the traffic cameras they would be used to identify unveiled women. Hamidi also warned that “all the city’s (surveillance) systems are in charge of multipurpose operations and store all kinds of information,” in addition to alluding to the “databases from which any government organization can extract information.” The general thus confirmed the use of facial recognition programs and the crossing of data to prosecute offenders of the veil law.
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Tehran Bureaua website founded by Iranians in the United States, revealed last September that six Chinese companies had sold facial recognition technology and crowd surveillance to Tehran and are “training the Iranian government” to implement Beijing’s “safe cities” concept, where “millions of citizens live under constant surveillance.” Golkar believes that the announcement of the use and installation of new cameras in Iran is aimed at “creating a chilling atmosphere, like that of China, a society in which everyone thinks they are being watched.”
The threats from members of the hard wing of the regime —the president, Ebrahim Raisí, is one of his champions— point to this climate of fear. On April 9, Hossein Shariatmadari, director of the official newspaper kayhan, he compared non-hijab Iranians to “drug addicts and drug dealers” who should be “treated seriously”. In March, an ultra-conservative cleric and deputy, Hossein Jalali, told the country’s media that a group of legislators will present a bill in Parliament to punish these women with fines of up to 64,000 euros, the withdrawal of driving licences, the confiscation of the passport and the prohibition to access the internet.
Sources from the Iranian Embassy in Madrid told EL PAÍS that “there is no record that this project has been admitted for processing in Parliament.” The measures announced by Jalali are, for these sources, “comments from one of the almost 300 deputies that Iran has.” However, the plan and the exorbitant fines – the average salary in Iran is around 400 euros – to which the cleric alluded have been reflected by Iranian official media, without anyone denying their existence.
Some of the regime’s threats are already a reality. For days, female students without a hijab have not been able to enter universities or institutes and subway and bus employees prevent those who are not covered from entering. “Six ministries do not receive these women and many stores have put up signs warning that they cannot serve them,” explains the Iranian activist based in Barcelona Ryma Sheermohammadi.
For Sheermohammadi, this new offensive on the veil is “inseparable” from the poisoning with an unknown chemical agent that thousands of girls —1,200, according to the UN, and up to 13,000, according to the Iranian website in exile IranWire— have suffered in schools in Iran since November. In March, Tehran announced the arrest of a hundred suspects, but the incidents have not stopped. This has earned Iran criticism from UN experts, who stated in a statement on March 16: “We fear that (those attacks) are orchestrated to punish the girls for her participation in the Mujer, Vida, Libertad movement and for expressing her opposition to the mandatory hijab.” The experts then decried the “stark contrast between the rapid deployment of force to arrest and imprison peaceful protesters and the failure for months to identify and apprehend the perpetrators of large-scale coordinated attacks on girls in Iran.”
The response of some Iranians without a headscarf to the new government measures has been attested these days by social networks, where photos and videos of women without a headscarf abound. In one of them, a young woman forced to cover herself to enter the Tehran subway removes her veil as soon as she passes her turnstile. Others have released hijab-free photos posing in front of police cars. An Iranian woman who was refused service in a bank because she did not cover her hair posted a humorous image of her with a grocery bag on her head that she put on to be served.
A few days ago Ali Khamenei threatened women by announcing that if they take off their hijabs, they will be guilty of haram acts. After that, the commander of the police force threatened to identify and arrest the revealed women. In response, Iranian women took off their hijabs… pic.twitter.com/PEMCc9hBnH
— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) April 19, 2023
Fereshteh, the fictitious name of the 19-year-old daughter of Sara – the woman who received the warning message on the mobile with whom this newspaper spoke – believes that the attempts of the regime to impose the hijab are “far from having an effect”. and affirms that “there are more and more girls who do not wear a headscarf”. For her and her peers, the hijab “is a chapter gone.” “Now you even see young people in skirts, shorts and sleeveless clothing,” she says. When asked how unveiled Iranians are reacting to the threats, she replies: “With pride.”
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