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‘As Iran’s Islamic Regime Draws Up Tyrannical New Hijab Plans, Where is the International Outrage?’

If a new ‘Hijab and Chastity Bill’ succeeds with no condemnation from voices abroad, the international community will be culpable, writes Parisa Hashempour

Pro-Government demonstrators at a rally condemning unrest over the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini in Tehran in September 2022. Photo: Zuma Press/Alamy

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The biggest feminist movement in the world right now is raging across Iran while the world looks the other way.

As protestors fearlessly forgo headscarves and demand improved living conditions, the Islamic regime is doubling-down. MPs are secretly meeting to debate a so-called ‘Hijab and Chastity Bill’ which, if passed, would mean extreme punishments for Iranian women who do not comply. So where is the international outcry?

As someone of mixed Iranian and British heritage, I am outraged. I am furious about the state violence being enacted on the soil of my ancestors’ homeland and with the weak silence reverberating from the country in which I was born – a silence I regard as nothing short of complicity.

The news of this bill comes ahead of the first anniversary of the death of 21-year-old Mahsa Zhina Amini, whose brutal murder at the hands of police stirred the nation into revolt. Amini was arrested for ‘improperly’ wearing her hijab, severely beaten, and died three days later in police custody. 

In the weeks and months following Amini’s killing, there was an outpouring of international support.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walked alongside his wife and children at a demonstration in Ottawa. US President Joe Biden spoke to Iranian Americans about the “awakening” taking place in the country. French President Emmanuel Macron met with activists, hailing the moment a “revolution”.

When women in Iran cut their hair in acts of defiance, actors Jane Birkin, Marion Cotillard and Isabelle Hupert did the same. In the European Parliament, Iraqi-Swedish MEP, Abir Al-Sahlani, cut her hair on stage.

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In the past, when I mentioned Iran to strangers, people would often mishear — “Iraq?” they’d ask. By autumn 2022, they might well chant ‘women, life, freedom!’ in recognition of the women-led resistance taking over both our Instagram timelines and the 10 o’clock news. 

But fast-forward a year and there is remarkable apathy towards Iran.

Newsreaders have moved on to the next social moment. Leaders are now reluctant to hold the Islamic regime to account. It is this lack of global attention that is emboldening it to pursue this new bill, one that would further gnaw away at women’s civil liberties.

Grappling to maintain control of the population, the proposed legislation would see women who refuse to wear the hijab facing huge fines and prison sentences of five to 10 years; their cars and communication devices could be confiscated; they could be banned from driving and prevented from accessing banking services. Women could be dismissed from work and have wages and employment benefits deducted. Businesses and public figures who do not comply could face bans on their professional activities, flogging and fines. 

To push the legislation forward, the Iranian Parliament drew on Article 85 of the Constitution. When triggered, it enables MPs to debate an issue without public involvement. The vote to debate this bill in secret took place in an open session of Parliament this week and passed with a majority of 175 to 49. The next step is a private parliamentary debate in which MPs will vote on how long to “experimentally” roll-out the punitive measures. It could then make its way permanently into law.  

This is a blatant attack on the basic rights of Iranian women. But to be clear, this is about much more than the hijab – it is about maintaining an illusion of control. Controlling not only women but all Iranians, and especially minoritised people.

If the bill succeeds with no condemnation from voices abroad, the international community will be culpable. That the UK has little to say about the matter is particularly astounding, given its role in destabilising the country’s democracy in the first place. 

Seventy years ago this week, Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosadegh, was ousted in a joint CIA-MI6 endeavour that laid the groundwork for the Islamic Revolution. Yesterday, the UK’s former Foreign Secretary, David Owen, called on the Government to own up to its role in the 1953 coup. He told the Guardian that doing so would make current calls for reform “more likely to succeed”. 

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If it has been in the UK’s interest to historically destabilise Iran, we might ask how much has really changed. Rich with oil, how concerned are our governments really in promoting ‘peace in the Middle East’?

It is time for our leaders, and public voices from across the political spectrum, to take responsibility and speak out in solidarity with the Iranian people. Because we know international action is effective. 

Last September, 25-year-old musician Shervin Hajipour created a moving protest song that soon went viral. He was promptly arrested and an international community of activists and diasporic Iranians, whose voices had carried the lyrics of ‘Baraye’ across oceans of global protestors on streets from Los Angeles to Glasgow, responded with fury. All eyes were on the regime, and he was swiftly released from prison. 

External pressure is critical to support the people of Iran. With noise, there is hope.

This bill might indicate that the regime will go to any lengths to clamp-down on women and those fighting for civil rights, but it also shines a light on their fears – their power over women is slipping and they are desperately clutching to get it back.

As Iranian people engage in a momentous struggle for their basic civil rights, the international community has a duty to amplify their voices. 

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