Since the Sep. 16, 2022, death in custody of Mahsa Jina Amini, an Iranian woman detained by the country’s religious morality police, Iran has alarmingly executed at least 640 individuals in state-sanctioned killings. The glaring figure is a testament to the regime’s continued brutality. And as the regime readies itself for the one-year anniversary of Mahsa’s death, they’ve taken a number of preemptive measures aimed at stifling any resurgence of unrest within the country. Today, the international community should center its focus on the widespread, systematic abuse against women and girls in Iran and commit to coordinated action aimed at justice and accountability.
Mahsa’s death sparked the months-long “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests that stretched across all 31 provinces in Iran and more than 150 cities across the globe. For a moment in time, the world stood in solidarity with the people of Iran. They flooded the streets of western capitals, they marched in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, New York City, and Toronto. Notably in Berlin, more than 80,000 people took to the streets in October 2022. They posted Instagram stories, shared Facebook posts, signed petitions, and held dialogue with friends and family.
In Iran, these months were by no means peaceful; several thousands faced arrest and at least five hundred were killed, including children, and others severely wounded. In February 2023, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, in his report to the Human Rights Council, stated that the “scale and violence committed by Iranian authorities pointed to “the possible commission of international crimes, notably crimes against humanity.” As rights groups continue to investigate, there are indications that violence perpetrated against women and girls in the context of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests amounts to the crime against humanity of gender persecution.
But this solidarity has faded, while Iranians remain in a harrowing fight for their lives.
The regime has recently pushed several measures, including the introduction of a new Hijab and Chastity Bill, the targeting of students and educational institutions, imposing control over clothing manufacturers, and the arrests of women’s rights activists. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list.
In schools, more than 3,000 students have been summoned to “disciplinary committees” in recent weeks. Upon summons they are pressured to sign agreements that they will not participate in future protests. In my personal interactions with a young Iranian student, she confided, “It was a heart wrenching experience […] the weight of the entire system was pressing down on me.” Another student said when asked about the summons, “I feel as if a heavy chain is wrapped around my leg.” While summoning students seems to be a fear tactic more than anything, it raises concerns at how these agreements could be used against students should they be found to participate in any protest related activity in the future.
The new hijab law has passed in parliament, and is set to be approved by the Guardian Council, composed of twelve appointed men, this month. The new law is composed of 70 contentious articles that not only fly in the face of demands of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protestors, but also basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Mandatory hijab remains the key focal point. The bill effectively mandates every sector of society to involve itself in policing the lives of Iranian women.
The enforcement of these laws will certainly follow the trend of policing women with a significant technological dimension, with artificial intelligence, surveillance, and cyber technologies playing a key role.
The bill carries extreme punitive measures for failing to comply, including heavy fines, mandated psychiatric treatment, and prison sentences.
Amirhossein Bankipour, the leader of the Family and Youth Protection Law Commission in the Islamic Council has indicated that the bill will come into force early October 2023.
In manufacturing facilities, clothing companies are being mandated to take part in a state-run training course on Islamic dress. This initiative is emblematic of a larger campaign to maintain control. The Iranian experience is not isolated. Throughout history, clothing has been used as a tool to exert control, promote conformity, and suppress dissenting voices.
One of the clearer signs can be seen in the preemptive arrests of prominent women’s rights activists in Gilan, a province in northwestern Iran. In September 2022, prominent activists were arrested in their homes and accused of colluding with foreign intelligence and security agencies, though such claims were unfounded. In truth, their only crimes were that they were activists. These arrests appear to be part of a larger, targeted, campaign with arrests of activists taking place across the country. All detained out of fear that they are capable of organizing popular protests. This tactic failed the regime the first time around. Now, their fate remains unknown.
While the regime’s measures may seem calculated, designed to suppress dissent across all sectors, their actions ring a clear message: Those in power are scared.
Solidarity in the aftermath of Mahsa’s death was commendable, but the momentum needed for real change was short lived. The path ahead demands a dual approach: continued international solidarity with the people of Iran and unwavering vigilance against human rights abuses from policymakers. The international community must provide platforms for Iranian voices to share their stories, ensuring that the world remains informed and engaged. Solidarity makes certain that voices from within Iran, especially marginalized communities and activists, are heard, amplified, and supported beyond the headlines.
Vigilance, on the other hand, ensures accountability, making certain that any infringement on basic human rights will not go unnoticed or unchallenged. There are numerous tools readily available.
Throughout the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests, the violence perpetrated against Iranian civilians at the hands of the State was so severe, it was morally impossible for the international community to turn a blind eye. Several hundred individuals and entities were designated under targeted human rights sanctions regimes across more than five jurisdictions including the United States, the European Union, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia; at times the designations were imposed unilaterally, at times coordinated across jurisdictions having greater impact.
Many of these same States, supported strongly by others, voted to establish a U.N. Fact-Finding Mission (FFMI) at the Human Rights Council. The FFMI is mandated to investigate the violence perpetrated, namely against women and girls during the protests, but also the underlying causes that may have led to such events. This type of united action is commendable. However it’s this type of momentum that mustn’t lag. There is clear evidence to suggest that, at times, when Iran is in the spotlight, harsher tactics subside.
In my own work, I have witnessed these individuals requesting their names be removed from articles and databases that name them as those alleged to be involved in human rights violations, a strong indication that name and shame tactics carry real weight. The continued use of targeted human rights sanctions regimes is a key component to closing the accountability gap in Iran. They are also key to signaling solidarity. When asked what these targeted designations signified to them, one Iranian human rights lawyer told me, “The designations don’t directly deliver justice, but they contribute to creating an environment where justice can be better served in the future.”
It’s worth mentioning that these designations are also creating a so-to-say master list of officials involved in human rights violations that have been reviewed under some of the highest levels of legal scrutiny to ensure they cannot be challenged in court.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee is set for its fourth periodic review of Iran under the ICCPR in October 2023. The Hijab and Chastity Bill must be reviewed in compliance with international standards in this dialogue. Doing so is crucial to protecting diverse cultural expressions and beliefs of Iranians and also sends a strong message of solidarity, that a woman’s autonomy mustn’t be secondary to conforming to State-imposed standards, anywhere in the world. The bill should also be reviewed by the FFMI. Multinational institutions, particularly those focusing on human rights, must ramp up their scrutiny and help see Iran through to real, attainable change. In such a world, silence is complicity.