Home News Human Rights Release of Hijab Protester Belies Iran’s Escalating Crackdown on Free Expression

Release of Hijab Protester Belies Iran’s Escalating Crackdown on Free Expression

In December 2017, Vida Movahedi stood on a utility box in a public street in Tehran and removed her white hijab, before holding it over her head at the end of a stick. In subsequent months, women who adopted similar makeshift banners were dubbed the “Girls of Revolution Street,” in reference to the location of the initial protest. But many of those women have been arrested and prosecuted, with some receiving substantial sentences from a judiciary that is recognizably committed to reasserting the theocratic nation’s religious laws and hardline identity.

It was only in March, several months after her demonstration, that Movahedi herself was sentenced to serve one year in prison. But on Sunday, less than three months into that sentence, she was reportedly summoned by prison authorities and told that her sentence had been commuted. No immediate explanation for the commutation was given, and Movahedi’s attorney did not speculate on the judiciary’s motivation when speaking to Western media. But Iran’s activist community is unlikely to see it as a sign of progress in the regime’s perception of public dissent or secular lifestyles.

On the same day as Agence France-Presse reported upon Movahedi’s release, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that authorities had arrested 15 individuals after raiding a private party in a village near the city of Kelardasht. The report emphasizes that the May 22 incident was only the latest in an ongoing and apparently escalating trend of attacks on mixed gender gatherings, generally carried out by the nation’s “morality police.”

The same hardline interpretation of Islamic law that underlies the forced veiling laws also mandates the separation of unrelated women and men in various public spaces. But young citizens frequently defy these laws in the context of mixed-gender parties. When raids upon these gatherings result in arrests, the authorities are generally able to file charges based on specific offenses such as the consumption of alcohol. But they may also pursue sentencing for vaguely defined laws such as “encouraging corruption and prostitution.”

Notably, the latter charge was also levied against some of the Girls of Revolution Street. And while such charges have the potential to carry lengthy prison sentences, the greater threat to partygoers in Iranian cities may be the threat of flogging. In May of 2016, for instance, 35 men and women at a party in Qazvin were summarily sentenced to receive 99 lashes each after a raid on the private villa where a party was being hosted.

That number exceeds the maximum number of lashes that are specified under the law for the consumption of alcohol, according to IHRM. The same report adds that regardless of the severe penalties associated with them, such activities are commonplace in the Islamic Republic. This fact was recently conveyed to Western audiences in the form of a new play that emerged from a risky visit to Iran by Nadia Fall, the artistic director for the Stratford East Theater in the United Kingdom.

Fall sought to meet people from Iran in order to “make a story based on the testimonials of how people live their everyday lives,” and she has described the resulting play, Welcome to Iran, as revealing “an unexpected world of raves, raids and illicit love.” In an interview with the Evening Standard on Tuesday, the playwright said of the wealth of underground subcultures in the Islamic Republic, the activities that appeal to young people “aren’t just going to stop because it’s illegal.”

But Fall also underscored that such things necessarily remain virtually invisible, as a play like hers could never be performed in Iran amidst the climate of heavy censorship. That, too, has intensified in recent years, with authorities cracking down not just on public protests and stories that portray a defiant and largely secular youth culture, but also on any activities and expressions that are deemed to fall short of the regime’s standards of Islamic behavior.

Music has been a particular battleground in this culture war being waged between the authorities and the ordinary population. And three recent reports by Iran Human Rights Monitor have called attention to persistence of both the regime’s assaults on musical expression and the public’s resistance to that repression.

Last week, the outlet highlighted the pending prosecution of Neghar Moazam, a woman whose only crime was singing publicly during a sightseeing tour in the historic village of Abyaneh. The report connected this incident to three other cases that were initiated this year, one of which involved a solo female vocal performance that lasted only “a few second.” And a separate report on Monday pointed out that female musicians had been banned from the stage without warning at a charity concert in Qazvin Province.

The latter incident specifically took place on the campus of Azad University, and thus represents a rising trend of repression targeting students specifically. The ban roughly coincided with protests at Tehran University stemming from the deployment of larger numbers of morality police officers to enforce Islamic codes of conduct, including forced veiling, among the student body.

On Sunday, IHRM reported that Iran’s cyber police had blocked the Instagram accounts of several street musicians, alleging criminal content even though the only posted images depicted the account holders playing their instruments. The relevant Instagram pages have since been replaced with messages saying that the “individuals involved in the crimes” are under investigation.

Just as the Qazvin charity incident reflects a rising level of repression on university campuses, these Instagram bans reflect the expansion of pressures on Iranian social media, where Instagram is the last Western platform that is still officially tolerated. As IHRM points out, despite the absence of an official ban, authorities have been focusing more and more attention on criminalizing the use of that platform as an outlet for Western, secular, and pro-reform points of view.

Meanwhile, as law enforcement works to silence musical performances on the street and in other casual performance venues, Iranian political authorities are working to profit off of music wherever it is genuinely tolerated and performed with the permission of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. As Tehran Times reported on Tuesday, the Iranian parliament passed legislation in February allowing that ministry to confiscated 10 percent of the proceeds from concerts in major cities.

In an open letter responding to the recent implementation of that law, the managing director of the Iran House of Music reportedly complained that it “will lead to irreparable damage to the music industry of the country.” Of course, in light of ongoing efforts to crack down on artistic and political expressions of all kinds, it may very well be that this is the law’s precise intention: to make formal musical performance less profitable while adding to the financing of authorities that would criminalize it in other contexts.

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