Yesterday, we attended a class. We noticed that there were two Muslim women in the class (and probably others) one wearing the hijab, and the other the niqab. This has become commonplace in modern Canada. They were treated with respect and dignity and nobody thought anything of it. Leading the class while wearing either garment would also be accepted here in Ontario. In Quebec, a controversial law would prohibit that, because the teacher would be displaying a religious symbol while providing a public service.
We don’t support the Quebec law, but that’s another story. We raise it to point out the ironic way that the hijab is perceived in different settings. It seems like it has to be either compulsory or forbidden. It’s strange how this simple garment affects people and makes them go to such absurd extremes.
The Koran says that both men and women should dress modestly. In Arab culture, this would include women covering their hair, among other customs. Now that Islam is a global religion, the rules for modesty vary widely. In some places, women cover their entire bodies with a burqa, while in others it’s unusual for Muslim women to cover even their hair. There’s no one set way to apply the rule about modesty.
One exception is Iran. In that country, all women, regardless of their religion must wear a hijab. A lawyer named Nasrin Sotoudeh won the Sakharov Human Rights Prize for her defense of women charged with this so-called crime, as well as her fight against the death penalty. That prize is awarded by the European Parliament. She isn’t winning any prizes in her own country, though. She has been the target of persecution and arbitrary arrests.
Iranian authorities arrested her in 2010. The court sentenced her to five years in jail on trumped-up charges of “spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security”. She served three years of that sentence. Then the government freed her, just in time for a visit to the United Nations by Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani.
Now, she’s back in jail. She was arrested last year at her home. It looks as if the police didn’t say what the charge was. The sole public announcement of her arrest was a Facebook post by her husband, Reza Khandan. In December 2018, her state appointed lawyer told the press that the court had charged her with “spreading information against the state, insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader and spying”. Once again, these are false charges.
Iran has a new head of the judiciary named Ebrahim Raisi. He is a hard line Islamist cleric. Days after he took office, Sotoudeh’s husband sent out a new Facebook post. Incidentally, he has also been arrested for protesting the hijab ban and is out on bail. This new Facebook post told us that Sotoudeh had been sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. She did not attend her sentencing because she insisted on her right to choose her own legal counsel.
She was informed in jail that the court had found her guilty on seven charges. The charges include “inciting corruption and prostitution, openly committing a sinful act by appearing in public without a hijab and disrupting public order”. These sentences are longer than the maximums prescribed by Iranian law for these offenses. She is refusing to appeal her case in protest of Iran’s unjust judicial process.
Other Iranians have also gone to jail over the hijab. Human rights defenders know of 12 other people who are in prison on this issue and, as you can see, there could be others that they know nothing about. In all, at least 34 people have been arrested. Yet, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reports that this has not stopped opposition to the hijab law. Studies show that most Iranians oppose the law, believing the hijab to be a personal choice. Rather than defer to public opinion, the government has been digging in its heels.
Iran uses two tactics to trump-up these charges. One is to find an excuse to bring in national security issues. Then, they can get away with not allowing the defendant legal counsel during the investigation. The other tactic is to find a way to bring in public morals, such as prostitution or public indecency. This lets them smear the reputations of the defendants and hang onto some support among conservative Muslims.
Believe it or not, Iran has a Bill of Rights. Let’s review some provisions.
All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.
The government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria.
No one may be arrested except by the order and in accordance with the procedure laid down by law. In case of arrest, charges with the reasons for accusation must, without delay, be communicated and explained to the accused in writing.
All affronts to the dignity and repute of persons arrested, detained, imprisoned, or banished in accordance with the law, whatever form they may take, are forbidden and liable to punishment.
None of these rights seem to apply if you forget to wear a scarf on your head. There are ways that you can help. Write to your elected representative and tell them that your government should condemn Iran’s deplorable human rights record. You could also write to the Iranian Embassy in your country, if it has diplomatic relations with Iran. (Canada does not.). The Center for Human Rights in Iran accepts donations and you can learn more about Iran’s poor human rights record at their website.
There is always more to learn if we dare to know.