September 28, 2023 | Toronto Sun

Iran’s new hijab law reflects on regime’s desperation

September 28, 2023 | Toronto Sun

Iran’s new hijab law reflects on regime’s desperation

Iran’s police state just got even more draconian. Last week, Tehran’s parliament passed a law that would strengthen penalties against women who fail to wear the mandatory hijab, or headscarf. It’s a sign the regime increasingly fears the growing strength and appeal of the women’s rights movement in the country, prompting legislators to enact harsher laws to deter dissenters.

It’s unlikely to work.

But the regime is trying. Under the new law, women who fail to wear the hijab as well as their supporters can face lashes, travel bans, social media restrictions and prison terms of up to 10 years. Businesses that refrain from enforcing the hijab can face fines or closures. Public institutions can deny key services, such as access to bank accounts, to dissenting women.

“The draft law could be described as a form of gender apartheid, as authorities appear to be governing through systemic discrimination with the intention of suppressing women and girls into total submission,” said a panel of United Nations experts in a statement before the statute’s passage.

To be sure, the regime’s infrastructure of repression was robust even without the law. After all, it was the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by Iran’s morality police, allegedly for wearing her hijab improperly, that triggered the latest nationwide uprising, which marked its first anniversary this month. The movement’s slogan — “women, life, freedom” — eloquently captures its spirit, which has evolved from demanding women’s rights to demanding the overthrow of a regime that deprives all citizens of their rights.

Amid this enduring challenge, Iran’s mullahs are clearly becoming desperate. Unable to stymie protests that have persisted almost daily for more than a year, even as they have long faded from Western headlines, the regime has nothing to offer its people other than violence and force, killing more than 600 demonstrators — including at least 79 minors — and arresting more than 22,000. Nevertheless, the uprising’s tenacity suggests that many Iranians no longer fear the regime. A new law, however harsh, won’t change that.

At the same time, the probable failure of the law won’t sway the regime to adopt more moderate policies. That’s because the use of violence to enforce the hijab was never rooted merely in misogyny per se. Rather, the law constitutes a key part of the Islamic Republic’s identity — a symbol of its defiance of Western norms and values.

For the mullahs, a woman’s exposure of her hair amounts to a public expression of female sexuality. It debases women, they believe, and tempts men toward sin, as it does in the West where such behavior is commonplace. As Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a 2013 address, if foreigners ask why Tehran restricts women’s freedom by requiring the hijab: “We should answer, ‘Why do you give them this harmful and threatening freedom?’”

In fact, Khamenei blames the United States for the hijab protests. As he asserted in a speech earlier this month, the American government is creating “crisis points in Iran” that are “related to gender issues and women’s issues.” In doing so, he added, Washington seeks “to harm our dear country.” In other words, Khamenei thinks Iran’s protesters absorbed their liberal ideals from the West.

He is half right. Iranian aspirations for civil liberties and constitutional government have roots more than a hundred years old, but its people still look abroad for inspiration. Iran’s protesters endure, despite the deadly risks they face, because they know that freedom works in practice. They look at Western democracies like Canada and the United States as models of governance that offer a template for a future Iranian democracy. As one slogan often chanted by demonstrators puts it, “America is not the enemy — the enemy is right here.”

Despite the regime’s bloody efforts, that sentiment is unlikely to change.

Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow and senior editor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies


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