The United Nations Sixth Committee has just concluded deliberating on the draft convention on crimes against humanity. Several states have underscored the necessity of incorporating “gender apartheid” into the list of crimes against humanity outlined in the draft. As the Islamic Republic of Iran intensifies its gender apartheid policies and laws, it serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need to criminalize such gender-based violations under international law.

Iran’s Newest Gender Restriction

The 70-article Hijab and Chastity Bill is nearing its final steps to become law in Iran. It targets not only women who defy mandatory Islamic veiling rules but would also impact import companies and the textile, fashion, tourism, and hospitality industries, which provide goods and services to such women. According to the bill, by doing so, these industries promote a culture of ‘nudity, unchastity, being without hijab, or with a loose hijab’ and shall be subject to punishment ranging from monetary fines to the loss of their licenses.

The bill was a reaction from the authorities to the popular uprising known as the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police for not properly wearing the Islamic veil. Despite a brutal crackdown, women’s widespread defiance of the veiling rules has persisted.

Initiated by the government, the bill passed through parliament in an extraordinarily expedited process and has encountered some back-and-forth with the Guardian Council. This body ensures that legislation aligns with Islamic rules and the Constitution. As soon as the Guardian Council is satisfied with the revisions currently being made by Parliament, the bill will become part of Iran’s laws and be enforced.

The bill will increase gender-segregated spaces and surveillance resources. Punishments for women not wearing the Islamic hijab in public will escalate to five to ten years in prison. It criminalizes actions from posting unveiled photos on social media to protesting hijab rules or collaborating with foreign media and governments against mandatory hijab laws. Celebrities breaking the law face severe penalties, and business owners could face fines, closure, and license revocation. The bill also allocates a significant budget to establish a central hub within the Ministry of Interior, to which ministries, state organs, and law enforcement agencies must report their compliance with the Hijab and Chastity regulation.

Security forces and police would be charged with identifying those without hijab in public or online, forwarding their cases to judicial authorities. Surveillance will expand through both human and artificial intelligence, with ‘Hijab Watchers’ and CCTV cameras monitoring public spaces. The watchers’ reports, along with CCTV footage, would be matched with government databases to identify women. Surveillance would extend to vehicle registrations and fines for unveiled women would be automatically deducted from their bank accounts,with text notifications and appeal options provided. Women’s bank accounts could be easily discovered through an inquiry to the Central Bank.

Even before the bill’s official enactment, many of these measures are already employed against women challenging the veiling rules. A notable recent incident involved a young woman in Qom being filmed by a cleric for her loosely worn hijab. The video capturing the tense confrontation between her and the cleric has gone viral, sparking nationwide outrage. Yet, authorities arrested four people for distributing the video. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran has described the new measures imposed on women and girls by the government, and the ‘Hijab and Chastity Bill’ in particular, as a form of gender apartheid. He stated: “authorities appear to be governing through systemic discrimination with the intention of suppressing women and girls into total submission”.

Applying the Parameters of Gender Apartheid in Iran

Gender apartheid has not yet been recognized as an international crime against humanity, nor have its constituting elements. However, by applying the legal framework of racial apartheid to gender apartheid, the End Gender Apartheid‘ campaign suggests the crime of gender apartheid is defined as “inhumane acts…, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination… by one gender group over another gender group or groups, and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” This definition encapsulates the situation in Iran, where every facet of women’s lives, bodies, and autonomy is affected.

The institutionalized regime of systematic oppression is marked by state-sanctioned control over women’s bodies and agency based on gender, regardless of their other identities such as religion or nationality. Central to this regime are the mandatory hijab and gender segregation. Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code, which criminalizes defiance of Islamic hijab rules and breaches of gender segregation as sinful or indecent public acts, serves as the cornerstone of this gender-based systematic oppression.

These rules, along with other regulations, empower various entities in workplaces and educational, healthcare, and cultural settings to enforce a broad spectrum of disciplinary actions and restrictions on women who flout mandatory hijab and gender segregation directives. In doing so, they infringe upon women’s human rights, including the rights to personal liberty, security, freedom of movement, and protection from torture and mistreatment, while also undermining their ability to enjoy human rights equally with men. This encompasses rights to education, employment, the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, freedom of movement in public spaces, and participation in recreational and sports activities. Manifestations of these violations include university expulsions, dormitory exclusions, job terminations, and public space bans for improper veiling or for entering male-only spaces.

Inhumane acts, including arbitrary arrests and detention to enforce mandatory hijab and gender segregation, have been widely and persistently employed by authorities in response to resistance against exclusionary policies. These incidents often involve excessive force, humiliation, intimidation, and both verbal and physical abuse, alongside court-ordered fines. In certain cases, women have faced lashing as a cruel punishment after unfair trials. The Iranian authorities’ treatment of women detained for improper hijab has included torture, such as rape and other sexual abuses, sometimes resulting in fatalities. The violence against women for resisting mandatory hijab and gender segregation has inflicted significant suffering and serious injury to their mental or physical health. 

Systematic domination by one gender group over another is applied through laws and policies which are deliberately designed to substantiate a hierarchy between men and women and perpetuate structural gender discrimination. These rules control and restrict the behaviour of both men and women and are firmly grounded in ideals of male ‘superiority’ and ‘female inferiority’ along stereotypical gender roles. The Constitution bars women from top political positions, allowing them limited judicial roles requiring male endorsement. Marriage laws set the legal age at 13 for girls and 15 for boys, with children marriagable below these ages with father or paternal grandfather guardian application and court approval. Virgin women need their male guardian’s permission to marry, and only men can pass Iranian nationality to children. Men may have multiple wives and hold absolute authority in the household, including over wives’ residence, employment, and travel. Marital rape is not criminalized, and wives face alimony loss for disobedience of husbands’ sexual desires. Divorce rights heavily favor men and custody laws privilege mothers only for children under 7, shifting to fathers thereafter. Inheritance laws also disadvantage women, granting them significantly smaller shares than men. The Penal Code sets different criminal responsibility ages for boys (15) and girls (9) and values women’s blood money —financial compensation for murder and bodily injuries— and court testimony at half that of men’s.

Intentions of maintaining the apartheid regime against women are evident from the Iranian authorities’ actions and statements. High-ranking officials have repeatedly emphasized that the Islamic Republic’s identity is founded on a dystopian view where gender dictates one’s position within the family, society, and politics, along with access to certain rights. This is enforced through oppressive regulations over women’s bodies and autonomy, and deeply discriminatory laws and practices ensuring male dominance over women.

Furthermore, the development of the Hijab and Chastity Bill by the government, in consultation with the judiciary and passage by Parliament, serves as clear evidence of the Islamic Republic’s commitment to upholding gender apartheid as a governance system. This bill introduces even more restrictive measures and severe penalties for those who challenge the gender-biased laws and segregation policies.


The Islamic Republic of Iran has pursued a Handmaid’s Tale style dystopian Sharia-based system, turning women’s bodies into ideological battlegrounds both privately and publicly. This was aimed at instituting a regime where gender determined one’s status as ‘superior’ or ‘subjugated’. The enforcement of mandatory hijab rules, along with laws deeply discriminatory towards women, was the key strategy used to push women into a ‘second-class position.’ At the same time, gender segregation policies reinforced a social order that, while ensuring male dominance, subjected both men and women to strict control and compliance.

Since the early years after the 1979 revolution, Iranian women have used ‘gender apartheid’ or ‘sexual apartheid’ to describe their plight, drawing parallels with South Africa’s apartheid regime. This comparison emphasized the gravity of their oppression and the need for international intervention similar to that against South African apartheid. Yet, despite global readiness to combat racial oppression, gender-based discrimination in Iran has been largely ignored. The international criminal law and its gatekeepers, who have historically overlooked women’s rights violations, must acknowledge Iran’s oppression, codify gender apartheid as a crime against humanity, and lead the international community to undertake its obligations to end such practices by the Islamic Republic.

IMAGE: An activist displays a placard inscribed with the words “Women, Life, Freedom”, during a demonstration in support of demonstrators in Iran, in front of the Brandenburg Gate lit up with the words “Woman, Life, Freedom” in various languages including Kurdish and Persian, in Berlin on December 13, 2022. (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)