Over the last three weeks, protests have erupted across Iran in response to the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini. Mahsa (Jina) Amini was a 22-year-old woman from Kurdistan who was arrested by the morality police, a special sect of law enforcement, in Tehran for “immodest clothing.”
Between the re-education centers, state-enforced decency laws, and morality police, those outside Iran may not understand the oppressive situation many Iranian women face every day – even now, as they protest for their rights.
Mahsa Amini was a 22 year old Kurdish woman from Saqez. On September 13, while on a trip to Tehran with her family, Amini was arrested by the Guidance Patrol for an “alleged inappropriate hijab.” Shortly thereafter she was transported by the Guidance Patrol to the Vozara Detention Center; a re-education center for women, with the promise she would be returned that night. Days later, she was declared medically braindead. She was in a coma for three days before she passed away.
In the time that passed between her arrest and her death, the Guidance Patrol’s story explaining her sudden death has wildly varied from that of her family. The Guidance Patrol claims that Amini suffered a heart attack while in detention. However, Amini’s family firmly disputes this story, telling press outlets that Amini did not have a heart condition. Instead, her family has alleged that Amini was severely beaten by police while in custody, and died as a result of her injuries.
Since her death became public, women across Iran have risen up by publicly burning their headscarves, “cutting their hair,” and chanting “death to the dictator.” All three of these actions are forbidden by the Iranian Penal Code, and punishable by violent means (“74 lashes”), jail time, or fines. Police have violently cracked down, with the death toll and arrests of protesters rising at the time this article was written. The risks the Iranian women are taking make it clear that Mahsa Amini’s murder has started a revolution.
Iranian Penal Code and Decency Laws
The Iranian Penal Code is unique in its blending of religious and modern political philosophy. Though it was most recently updated in 2013, Book 5 of the Code, entitled Ta’azirat, has not been updated recently. Book 5 holds several laws that are relevant to the current political protests in Iran. However, perhaps the most relevant is in Chapter 18, entitled “Crimes against public prudency and morality.” Article 638 states:
Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a harām (sinful) act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public prudency, they shall only be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes. Note- Women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab, shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of fifty thousand to five hundred Rials. (emphasis added).
While the first half of Article 638 widely applies to members of all genders, its enforcement primarily focuses on women. Aside from the clear targeted nature of these laws, the danger lies in the ambiguity. There is no clear definition for appropriate dress, thus the Guidance Patrol is able to use a broad interpretation when enforcing the law.
The enforcement of these laws often falls on a special sect of Iranian law enforcement called Gasht-e-Ershad (“Guidance Patrol”), or morality police. They have the power to arrest, detain, and, in some cases, bring violators of the law to education centers. While the Guidance Patrol’s usage varies based on the current leader, its presence has been notable in Iranian society since the early 1990s. However the Guidance Patrol has expanded greatly under the current administration.
What are Iran’s International Obligations?
The Iranian government’s discriminatory laws that specifically target women violate several fundamental human rights. Iran has signed, but not ratified, certain treaties that could apply to these laws, such Convention against Terrorism (CAT) and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). However, Iran has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1975, which could be enforced regarding Iran’s recent treatment of protesters.
Article 21 of the ICCPR states, “the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society.” The recent protests across the country have been met with a violent crackdown by police, resulting in dozens of people killed, and subsequent alienation of Iranian citizens from the rest of the world, likely violating this provision.
The Iranian government, particularly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have defended the government’s response to protests, claiming that there are few people that want to cause chaos and unrest, and they have been destructive towards religious property, women, and law enforcement. This position has been refuted by the United States Treasury and several human rights organizations. However, if true, the government’s response could fall under the few exceptions to the right of peaceful assembly, which include responses “which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Additionally, Article 26 states, “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (emphasis added). This provision could be applied to Iran’s restrictive laws specifically targeting women, leading to the conclusion that Iran is likely in violation of Article 26 as well as Article 21. Unlike Article 21, Article 26 does not have any listed exceptions
While the ICCPR is not the full extent of Iran’s international human rights obligations, it is an example of the established human rights the government of which the government is likely in violation.
Over the past few weeks, women in Iran have courageously risen up to protest the untimely murder of Mahsa Amini. In doing so, they have defied morality laws that have existed as a fixation in the Iranian Penal Code for decades. Despite the Iranian police’s violent crackdown on protests, the movement and its message has continued to spread across Iran and the world.
Author Biography: Andrea Lorch is a Senior Moderator for the International Law and Policy Brief and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Religion, and a minor in Islamic World Studies from Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois, United States. She is interested in international human rights law and international humanitarian law.