State-sanctioned liberty crime

In this blog Nadia Aghtaie* argues that the enforcement of mandatory veiling is a form of ‘state-sanctioned liberty crime’, as it deprives the nation, especially the minoritised women and girls, from making free choices. 

Protest banner saying women, life, freedom - Victory is oursFollowing the 1979 Revolution in Iran, gender-related issues became one of the Iranian State’s central concerns, as its leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, took the view that redefining gender relations would support the Islamisation of Iranian society. The gender ideology and transformation of society (and therefore of women) was partly achieved through the educational system. In 1980, the State launched the Islamic Cultural Revolution, which entailed the closure of universities for two years while new curricula were prepared and ideological criteria were established for both students and staff. Also, through laws and policies, the State attempted to propagate the ideal genders, that necessitated the ‘emancipation’ of women from Western culture in order to advocate its policies, via a process named ‘Westoxification’ (Khosravi, 2008).

Policing of women’s sexuality in Iran

Over the past 45 years, the ‘women question’ has been located at the crossroads of almost every policy-making discussion, and the rigid ideal genders model has created a hierarchal structure, with Muslim men at the apex and women who fail to adhere to the State-prescribed norms in the lowest tier (Aghtaie, 2016). Currently, Iran’s Civil and Criminal Code[1] and the resulting policies discriminate in terms of gender. The Iranian State’s gender ideology is based on a belief that, firstly, men are women’s guardians, even though men can easily succumb to temptation. Secondly, women have an inherent seductive nature and men are powerful predators who are highly sexually-driven, which makes men vulnerable (Moghadam, 2003).  Hence, women’s sexuality should be suppressed and shielded from the male gaze and any external cultural forces. Therefore, by regulating women’s sexuality, the Muslim State can maintain the political, social and moral order. However, the fact that the State has enforced mandatory veiling in female-only spaces, such as female single-sex schools, shows that the aim was to make the hijab an inherent aspect of womanhood. One way of compelling the public to adhere to the prescribed policies has been that the redefinition of binary heteronormative gender relations is inherently part of the Islamic teaching and therefore divine and non-negotiable (Shahidian, 2002).

It must be noted that women in Iran were not completely liberated prior to the Revolution either. Many of the current laws and policies are rooted in the past  (Moghadam, 2003), but, after the Revolution, the State has not only systematically curtailed women’s freedoms, but also justified its actions by arguing that they are the representative of the ‘true’ Islam, and hence what they preach is irrefutable. The resulting policies include gender segregation in many public spaces and mandatory veiling. The State’s interference in women’s sexuality and clothing is not exclusive to the post-revolutionary policies. In 1936, Reza Shah Pahlavi banned the hijab, perceiving it as a sign of backwardness. As Haleh Esfandiari stated: ‘This was certainly a victory for women but a tragedy too because the right to choose was taken away from women, just as it was during the Islamic Republic when the veil was officially reintroduced in 1979’. Over the last four decades, those who have challenged the emergent discriminatory gender policies and heteronormative genders in daily life have been punished, threatened, or excluded in some way, and/or labelled agents of the ‘West’.

I argue that the enforcement of mandatory veiling is a form of ‘state-sanctioned liberty crime’, as it deprives the nation, especially the minoritised women and girls, from making free choices. The State has operationalised mandatory veiling through a morality policy known as ‘Gashte Ershad’. The morality police patrol Iran’s streets to ensure that the nation, specifically young females, are presenting themselves as pious Muslims. Although young men are also cautioned and sometimes arrested for improper appearance, women and girls are far more scrutinised by the regime. Strikingly, this state-sanctioned liberty crime transcends issues of gender. For example, since the succession of the Islamic Republic of Iran, members of the Bahai community cannot declare an allegiance to their religion and have been systematically discriminated against in every aspect of their daily life.

Several Muslim feminists and women’s rights advocates have challenged the view of women as vulnerable to immorality and the enforcement of mandatory veiling, perceiving veiling as a choice rather than an obligation. For example, Mernissi (1991: xi) stated, that ‘if women’s rights are a problem for some modern Muslim men, it is neither because of the Koran, nor the Prophet, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of the male elite’. 

This state-sanctioned liberty crime, and the resultant gender-based violence have been heightened by the State’s extension of the morality police’s power to the Islamic people’s collective community, ‘Ummah’. For example, one of Muslims’ most important religious duties is ‘to promote virtue and prevent vice’. In practice, this gives the perceived virtuous Muslims the right to assist the State by admonishing those who fail to adhere to the codes of modesty in public. Strikingly, the perception of what constitutes modesty and appropriate clothing has changed over the last 44 years. The laws and regulations of the Revolution’s first decade were more restrictive than those of the following three decades. However, even after the State adopted a relatively more lenient stance, the morality police have sometimes flooded the streets to clamp down on women’s clothing and appearance in public.

The case of Mahsa Amini

In September 2022, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Jina (Mahsa) Amini, was killed while in the morality police’s custody. Strikingly, this was not an isolated incident. Jina was neither the first nor the last to be beaten by the morality police. Jina’s killing sparked an uprising, known as ‘Women, Life, Freedom’, which spread across the country, accompanied by the staging of large-scale protests by the diaspora communities across Europe and North America. The morality police and security forces responded to this uprising by perpetuating violence and arbitrary arrests. As many as 551 protesters were killed by the security forces, including at least 49 women and 68 children, and over 20,000 people were arrested. Some of these were released but a large number of the protesters are currently serving long prison sentences, including general members of the public, mainly young people, students, academics, artists, journalists, musicians, and so forth. To suppress uprisings of this nature, the State has fostered an atmosphere of fear by conducting public executions. The arbitrary arrests and executions of prisoners have continued. On 25th April 2024, the rapper Toomaj Salehi received the death sentence for his involvement in the widespread protests and has been charged with ‘corruption on earth’. In general, we might say that the state-consecrated holy iron boots have tried to suppress a feminist movement by using religious narratives as well as politicising issues concerning gender. The younger generation in Iran is not what the State was hoping for, and the fact that this is the first time that huge numbers of men have also stood side by side with their female counterparts from different age groups and ethnicities has worried those in power. I finish this blog with segments of one of Toomaj Salehi’s rap songs. Let’s hope his death sentence is lifted and he can live to become one of many voices:  I am drunk from the whip they lashed me with; A winner of the prison they took me to…I have roots; I am tenacious, Me! I am the tree of hope of the homeland…

[1] For example, see Aghtaie, N. (2017) Rape within heterosexual intimate relationships in Iran: legal frameworks, cultural and structural violence, Families, Relationships and Societies; Staines, J., Aghtaie, N., & Roy, J. (2022). Gendered Justice: Inequalities in the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility in IranYouth Justice22(3), 290-303.

*Dr Nadia Aghtaie is a Senior Lecturer in Gender and Violence at the School for Policy Studies. Her research spans three interconnected areas: gender, justice, and violence within the Iranian context; the intersection of gender-based violence and faith; and youth and GBV. Her theoretical work emphasises the use of cultural and structural violence concepts from a feminist perspective to elucidate the interplay between victims, perpetrators, culture, and the state

More from Nadia Aghtaie on this subject here: ‘Mandatory veiling and morality police: an impingement on women’s liberty’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (1)

**The Centre for Gender and Violence Research is running a series of blogs produced by staff and postgraduate researchers to spotlight cutting-edge feminist research on gender-based violence at the University of Bristol. Editor: Professor Aisha K. Gill, School for Policy Studies.


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