In September 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, was arrested by Iran’s Gashte Ershad (guidance patrol, widely referred to as the ‘morality police’) for her alleged non-compliance with the country’s Islamic dress code, or hijab, under which women must wear a headscarf in public places.

Three days later, she died in police custody, spurring widespread protests. Iranian officials deny she was beaten by police and say she died of natural causes.

This Insight describes the current enforcement of Iran’s dress laws, attempts by Iranian authorities to curtail repeat protests in 2023, and how the UK Government has responded to the actions of Iranian authorities.

Protests after Mahsa Amini’s death in 2022

Mahsa Amini’s death triggered widespread protests that continued into January 2023. The Norway-based non-profit organisation Iran Human Rights reported that 537 protesters were killed by state security forces, while the US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency estimates more than 19,400 individuals were arrested.

Iranian authorities have also issued at least 26 death sentences for protesters and seven people have been executed, according to the United Nations fact-finding mission on Iran.

What is the status of Iran’s hijab law?

Shortly after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, it has been obligatory for women to wear a headscarf in public places.

While Iranian authorities’ initially suggested they might lessen the enforcement following the 2022 protests, they have since distanced themselves from this position and are now strengthening enforcement.

Speaking in April 2023, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that “removing the hijab is forbidden religiously and politically”.

Increased enforcement of dress rules

In July 2023, Iran’s morality police resumed patrols after a 10-month gap.

A UN fact-finding mission reported that facial recognition software has been deployed to identify women not wearing a headscarf, and Amnesty International reports that authorities are confiscating or immobilising the cars of women breaking the law.

The Iranian parliament, the Majles Shoraye Eslami, is currently considering legalisation that increases the penalties for not wearing a headscarf, to include imprisonment for up to three years (the penalty is currently 60 days imprisonment, a fine or up to 74 lashes). It is meeting in private to discuss the law.

Press reports cite continuing opposition in Iran to these laws. Some businesses have also been closed for refusing to enforce them.

How are Iranian authorities preparing for the one-year anniversary?

In March 2023, a limited pardon was issued for many of those who participated in last year’s protests. Those receiving pardons had to pledge not to participate in any further demonstrations.

Media reports state that Iranian authorities are seeking to disrupt planned protests marking the anniversary. Human Rights Watch states that leading female activists have been arrested and the Union of Journalists in Tehran said more than 100 journalists have been arrested since September 2022.

There are reports that university students have been summoned to disciplinary committees and previous protestors and their families have received warnings not to protest in September.

In addition to women, some of the groups most targeted by the regime’s response in 2022 were minority groups such as Baluchis, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims (Iran is a Shia state), and Kurds. In 2023, there have been reports of heightened discrimination and arrests against Sunni groups in response to their involvement in last year’s protests.

In 2023 protests in Iran have continued, motivated by economic challenges and by minority groups arguing the government is neglecting their needs.

How has the UK responded to the protests?

Iran remains one of the UK’s 32 human rights priority countries, and the Government has said Iran’s human rights record is “dire.”

Alongside international partners like the European Union and the United States, the UK Government has:

Calls to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a 100,000-strong military force in Iran that works overseas supporting Iran-aligned groups in countries such as Syria and Yemen, and was also among the forces deployed to counter protesters in 2022.

Some MPs, including the Shadow Foreign Secretary, have called for the IRGC to be proscribed a terrorist organisation in the UK.

Under the Iran (Sanctions) (Nuclear) (EU exit) Regulations 2019, the entire IRGC organisation is already sanctioned by the UK. Proscribing the IRGC would create further offenses, including belonging to or inviting support for the group or arranging or assisting with the arrangement of a meeting.

In July 2023, the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, said the Government would keep the issue under review but that while he recognised proscription was the “desired outcome” for many, this was:

without necessarily understanding that much of what they suspect they want to see [as] […] the outcome of proscription is actually already in place, such as asset freezes and travel bans [under the sanctions regime].

The UK is introducing a new sanctions regime

In July 2023, the Foreign Secretary announced the UK would introduce a new sanctions regime against Iran. He said this would give the UK more powers to target key Iranian leaders and expand the criteria under which they can be sanctioned. In addition to human rights abuses, these criteria will include those posing a threat to the UK and stability in the Middle East.

The legislation will be the first wholly geographical autonomous sanctions regime under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. The Foreign Secretary says the Government will bring forward the necessary legislation “with as much expediency as we are able”.

Further reading

About the author: Philip Loft is a researcher in the House of Commons Library, specialising in the Middle East.

Photo by Akbar Nemati on Unsplash

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