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Iran: compulsory headscarf crackdown is 'terrorising' women and girls - new testimonies

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Hundreds of thousands of vehicles driven by women or with female passengers have been confiscated

Scale of prosecutions unknown but fears it may to run into many thousands 

One woman lashed 74 times for appearing unveiled in public

‘The Iranian authorities are terrorising women and girls by subjecting them to constant surveillance and policing’ - Diana Eltahawy

The Iranian authorities are conducting a major campaign to enforce repressive compulsory veiling laws through widespread surveillance of women and girls in public spaces and mass police checks targeting women drivers, said Amnesty International today ahead of International Women’s Day.

In the past year, tens of thousands of women have had their cars arbitrarily confiscated as punishment for defying Iran’s veiling laws, while others have been prosecuted and sentenced to flogging or prison terms, or have faced other penalties such as fines or being forced to attend “morality” classes. 

In newly-collected testimonies from 46 people - 41 women, including a trans woman, one girl and four men - the stark details are revealed over how a range of Iranian state agencies are involved in persecuting women and girls or exercising their rights to bodily autonomy and freedom of expression and belief. 

Amnesty has released excerpts of 20 of the testimonies ‎to provide a glimpse into the frightening daily reality faced by women and girls in Iran. At the time of publication, proceedings against six of the women were ongoing. 

The enforcers of Iran’s degrading compulsory laws include the Moral Security Police, traffic police, prosecution offices, the courts, the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards, as well as the Basiji paramilitary force and other plain-clothed agents. 

Official announcements indicate that since last April the morality police have ordered the confiscation of hundreds of thousands of vehicles driven by women or with female passengers (some as young as nine) who were not wearing a headscarf or wearing one in a way deemed “inappropriate”. According to the testimonies, such orders are based on images captured by surveillance cameras or reports from plain-clothed agents patrolling the streets and using a police app called “Nazer” to report the registration numbers of vehicles with non-compliant female drivers or passengers. 

The women who’ve been targeted - as well as their relatives - have received threatening text messages and phone calls instructing them to report to the morality police to hand over their vehicles as punishment for defying compulsory veiling. Amnesty reviewed screenshots of 60 such text messages issued to 22 women and men over the past year. 

In recent months, the authorities have also conducted mass car stops and checks, targeting women drivers on busy roads. Police officials pull over the women drivers and run their registration numbers through their system, and if marked for confiscation they are forced to go to police stations where their cars are impounded. Cranes are brought in to impound the cars of women who refuse to comply.

A bill, which aims to codify and intensify the authorities’ assault on women and girls for defying compulsory veiling is now nearing adoption in the Iranian parliament. Last month, President Ebrahim Raisi formally accepted the significant financial costs of implementing the proposed law, paving the path for the country’s Guardian Council to approve it.

Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said:

“In a sinister attempt to wear down resistance to compulsory veiling in the wake of the ‘Woman Life Freedom’ uprising, the Iranian authorities are terrorising women and girls by subjecting them to constant surveillance and policing, disrupting their daily lives and causing them immense mental distress. 

“The intensifying persecution of women and girls is taking place just weeks before the UN Human Rights Council is set to vote on extending a fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate violations since the death in custody of Mahsa/Jina Amini, particularly against women and children.” 

Intimidating car chases

Amnesty spoke to 11 women who described intimidating car chases and stops and sudden impoundings while going about their ordinary daily activities, such as commuting to work, medical visits or school runs. They emphasised the police’s complete disregard for their safety, with some women left stranded on busy roads or in cities far from their hometown. Women and men said that the process to retrieve their cars from the morality police involves long queues and degrading treatment from officials including gender-based insults and reprimands about their appearance

In many cases, senior morality police officials order a car’s release after 15-30 days, once payment fees for parking and crane transfers are settled and written undertakings to observe compulsory veiling are obtained from women and/or their male relatives. In other cases, the morality police refer women and girls to the prosecution authorities, noting successive reports of them not wearing headscarves in vehicles, and conditioning the release of their cars on prosecution orders. 

Women also described to Amnesty how their access to public transport, airports and banking services is regularly denied and conditioned upon them wearing a headscarf. Women detailed how state enforcers, especially at airports, denied access to women and girls in hats and scrutinised the length and fit of their sleeves, trousers and uniforms. The women said such encounters are routinely accompanied by verbal abuse, including gender-based insults and threats of prosecution. One woman also told Amnesty about an incident in late 2023 where an enforcer at a metro station in Tehran punched her 21-year-old niece in the chest. A 17-year-old girl told Amnesty that her school head teacher temporarily suspended her after a CCTV camera captured her unveiled in a classroom, threatening to report her to the Intelligence Organisation of the Revolutionary Guards if she removed her headscarf again.   


Amnesty has learned about 15 women and a 16-year-old girl in seven provinces who were prosecuted solely for appearing without headscarves or for wearing “inappropriate” hijab, or hats while in their vehicles, in public places such as shopping malls, theatres, airports or the metro, or in photographs posted on their social media accounts. The overall scale of such prosecutions is hard to ascertain as the authorities don’t publish statistics, however, a statement from the police chief of Qom province in January referred to 1,986 criminal cases in connection with compulsory veiling in Qom alone since March 2023, indicating that such cases may be occurring on a very extensive scale nationwide. One woman told Amnesty that a judge pointed to a pile of some 30 or 40 cases on his desk, commenting that they were all related to compulsory veiling. Several other women said that prosecution and police officials complained about their heavy workload due to women’s resistance against compulsory veiling. 

Amnesty has documented cases of four women who received prosecution orders demanding that they participate in up to five “morality” classes and avoid any “criminal” conduct for up to a year in order for the criminal case against them to be closed. One of the women described how the prosecution official running the class blamed the 40 women participants in the class for high divorce rates and reprimanded them for appearing “naked”. Amnesty has also documented the cases of three other women who were sentenced to fines, while another woman was ordered to write a letter expressing repentance and threatened with a fine. 

Threat of flogging and imprisonment

In addition to other penalties, the prosecution authorities and judges have threatened most women and girls with flogging and imprisonment, while one was threatened with death and another with sexual violence. The father of a 16-year-old girl told Amnesty that during her trial the judge of a juvenile court aggressively asked her why she did not observe compulsory veiling and threatened her with flogging and imprisonment. The girl was eventually acquitted but was forced to sign an undertaking at the Moral Security Police. In January, the authorities implemented a flogging sentence of 74 lashes against Roya Heshmati for appearing unveiled in public. In testimony on her social media account she recounted the flogging by a male official in the presence of a judge in a room she described as a “medieval torture chamber”. 

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