According to Article 638 of Iran’s 1996 Islamic Penal Code, “women who appear in the street and public places without the Islamic hejab will serve time, between ten days and two months, and will have to pay a cash fine”.
The law, however, does not define the exact parameters surrounding the “Islamic hejab,” leaving that crucial judgment up to the police and the paramilitary Basij force. This leaves a gap open for security forces to exploit, despite the fact that morally the hejab is something that cannot be enforced by law or through coercion.
Through my work as a lawyer I have paid numerous visits to the Ershad Judicial Complex, which is responsible for fighting so-called “social corruption.” I have witnessed many abuses of power, and also things that are simply not quite right.
Take, for instance, the printed form the police and the Basij use as they patrol the streets and shopping centers looking for women they believe are not properly wearing the hejab.
The form has three parts, the first dealing with woman’s hair, and includes checkboxes for ‘completely uncovered head,’ ‘partially uncovered hair,’ ‘styled hair showing’, ‘uncovered neck,’ ‘thin headscarf’ and, oddly, ‘visibility of the breasts.’
The second part applies to the use of make-up: lipstick, mascara, eye shadow, blusher, nail polish on fingers or toes and banned glasses.
The third outlines the various ways a woman’s attire may be grounds for legal action: ‘a tight-fitting manteau,’ ‘a short manteau,’ ‘a manteau with slits showing the body,’ ‘an unconventional manteau,’ ‘stockings with a banned pattern,’ ‘no stockings’ and the ominous ‘other.’
Many of the form’s checkboxes are vague and open to interpretation, such as ‘banned glasses’ and ‘unconventional manteau,’ leaving the individual policeman or the Basiji to make their own judgement on what qualifies what.
The breadth of the form also gives security forces both an incentive and opportunity to constantly scan women in public whose necks are showing or who are wearing lipstick or mascara.
Islam definitely forbids scrutiny being this close. According to the prominent 13th century Shi’a jurist Allamah al-Hilli, a proper Muslim should look at a woman’s hand or face just once and only if necessary. A second look is forbidden. With these forms in hand, policemen and Basijis have an excuse to relentlessly stare at women so that they find ways they are violating the law as far as how they are dressed and how their bodies look.
A second form is dedicated to drivers and passengers. The checklist includes ‘inappropriately dressed’ passengers, ‘passengers with make-up,’ ‘naked body parts,’ ‘tight-fitting dress’ and ‘uncovered hair.’ This form is likely to have more serious consequences than the form dealing with women’s appearance on the street, because it requires the inspection of all moving vehicles to discover whether or not a female driver or any of their passengers are wearing a tight-fitting dress or whether a body part is on show.
In 2009 a young woman came to my law offices and recounted how she had been arrested in a coffee shop as she was drinking coffee with her cousin. They were both taken to the Department for Fighting Moral Corruption. After a few hours she and her cousin were released on bail and the processing of the case was scheduled for several days later.
When I became an attorney I went to the courthouse to review the case. It turned out that they were arrested for drinking coffee “in a provocative manner.”
Fortunately when the court was convened I was able to defend them successfully and they were acquitted from this absurd charge.