by Gelara Fanaeian, the Law School, University of Bristol
In July 2023, the Iranian parliament started the process of new legislation and harsher laws for women who fail to follow compulsory hijab laws. The outcome was the Hijab and Chastity Bill: a draft law consisting of 70 articles. MPs relied on Article 85 of Iran’s constitution to review bills without public debate. According to UN experts, “The draft law could be described as a form of gender apartheid. The bill violates fundamental rights, including the right to take part in cultural life, the prohibition of gender discrimination, the right to access social, educational, and health services, and freedom of movement.” Less than one month after the UN warning, a majority of the Iranian parliament voted to pass the bill for a 3-year trial. This article will highlight the impact of the bill on one aspect of women’s rights: the right to health. Before going deeply into this discussion, one fundamental question needs to be answered: Why has the Iranian parliament decided to approve the bill?
A short overview: The hijab as a political symbol
In September 2022, Mahsa Jina Amini was arrested for allegedly breaking strict hijab rules. Her death in the custody of Iran’s so-called “morality police” resurfaced deep-rooted dissatisfaction among Iranians, particularly women, and resulted in the first protest led by women, with the slogan of ‘women, life, freedom’. Protesters demanded not only the cancellation of the mandatory hijab but also a fight against the systematic violation of women’s rights, human rights and freedom. Many demanded a referendum and potentially a secular system. The response of the Islamic Republic of Iran was a deadly crackdown; protesters have been killed, arrested, raped, tortured and in some cases executed. The next step was to pass a harsher law that led to the creation of the Hijab and Chastity Bill, that aims to severely punish women who refuse to wear the hijab by imprisonment, fines and deprivation of civil rights.
Some might wonder why the government did not choose to ease or cancel the strict hijab laws. After Iran’s 1979 revolution, the Iranian government aimed to change the image of society to achieve two parallel goals: first, to make it compatible with conservative or traditional interpretations of Islamic norms, and more importantly, to separate it from Western societal norms. To do so it became compulsory for women to cover their hair and bodies (or most of the bodies). The compulsory hijab has become a symbol of Islamisation of the state and the government’s legitimacy. As Ashraf Zahedi accurately states, in this situation, the female body has been idealised, theologised, and politicised. Hence, easing the restricted hijab laws could undermine the foundation of state-established power.
The right to health and the draft of the Hijab and Chastity Bill
The potential impact of the Hijab and Chastity Bill on women’s right to health can be debated. Article 12 of the bill focuses on the matter of health and the hijab. The language used in the current draft, particularly in Article 12, is ambiguous. Article 12 starts by emphasising the necessity for healthcare providers to follow the dress code. The second section states that hijab laws include patients. However, it is not clear how this law will be implemented or how it will impact women’s access to health services. Does it mean that the morality police officers aim to be present in healthcare institutions and hospitals to give warnings to women who refuse to wear hijabs or prevent them from accessing services? Or will this duty be on the shoulders of healthcare providers? How does this situation impact patients’ rights? What about the power imbalance in the doctor-patient relationship? An ongoing list of unanswered questions and vagueness in the chosen language can be problematic from a human rights perspective, more precisely, for the state’s accountability. On the one hand, it opens the door for different interpretations and permits interference with access to health rights; on the other hand, it can assist the state in claiming the harmony of its national laws with human rights laws. To understand the severity of the situation in broader health policies, two examples can be enlightening. First, in February 2023, Iran’s Health Minister stated that violations of hijab regulations at hospitals are considered a crime. Second, in recent months and before the approval of the Hijab and Chastity Bill, a few healthcare institutions started to deny healthcare to women who refused to wear the hijab. It seems that the current draft will legitimise those policies.
The third section of the Article starts with the requirement for gender segregation among employees in healthcare facilities and states the necessity of creating a ‘dedicated environment for providing medical services to prevent the presence of non-mahram unless it is inevitable.’ According to Sharia law, ‘non-mahram’ can be defined as people whom it is not forbidden to marry. It includes everyone except the husband or a male member of the family like a father, brother, uncle or grandfather. Again, the chosen language is ambiguous. It is not clear if in this situation male doctors -or nurses- are allowed to treat female patients. Or is this only possible in cases of necessity? In some interpretations of Islamic laws, doctors are categorised as ‘mahram’, but not all clergy agree with this approach. The question is how gender segregation affects the quality, timeliness, and accessibility of healthcare services. From another angle, by considering male domination in the hierarchy of health institutions, how does gender separation impact the ability of female doctors and healthcare providers to participate in health-related decision-making and project their deeper understanding of female patients’ voices and needs?
The scope of violation of the right to health is not limited to Article 12. According to the United Nations, violence against women can be defined as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” The Hijab and Chastity Bill falls under this categorisation, not only for arbitrary deprivation of liberty in public life and creating consistent fear of facing legal punishments, but also for the institutionalisation of gender discrimination and objectifying women’s bodies. This draft aims to internalise sexism and reshape the way both society and women define female identity, roles and rights. Consequently, these forms of external oppression can lead to internal pressure, threaten the mental health of Iranian women, and undermine their right to health in a different form.
Lastly, while the bill does not directly discuss reproductive health rights or reproductive health education, it continuously emphasises education in “Islamic family values and family-centred policies”. To understand why some feminist scholars find these terms concerning, a short background needs to be provided. During the last decade, family planning education and services in all hospitals were cancelled and have been replaced by courses that promote “Islamic family values”. The current course material mostly aims to promote early marriage and high fertility and emphasises abortion as a sin and a crime. It seems that the current bill reinforces those plans and provides more resources to limit access to sexual and reproductive health education, consequently restricting women’s autonomy over their bodies.
Finally, the second part of this blog post will focus on Iran’s obligation to international human rights law, the role of the international community, and a brief conclusion discussing the impact of the bill on women’s rights in general and women’s access to health as a human right in particular.