The recent spate of acid attacks in Isfahan, Iran, have left several Iranian women severely injured and some partially blind. Many Iranians are concerned that the women were targeted for “bad hijabs,” meaning their head scarves did not comply with a particular social standard of modesty. Though hardline and moderate politicians alike have condemned the attacks, arguments over the legal framework at play highlight the divisions within the Iranian government.
The attacks coincide with a law passed in Iran’s parliament on Sunday that provides protection for individuals to “correct” the behavior of both men and women who do not adhere to certain social mores. Though the specifics of the law have not yet been finalized, it has been critiqued as empowering social conservatives to criticize—if not attack—women who do not conform to what is claimed to be traditional or “virtuous” dress codes.
Originally proposed by a group of hardline MPs in June, this law is intended to protect those undertaking the Islamic act of "enjoining good and forbidding wrong," that is, suggesting or ordering others to act in a way considered appropriate in Islamic law. The proposal followed a number of reports in which individuals engaging in “enjoining good and forbidding wrong” were attacked—for example, a wedding guest who attempted to halt the consumption of alcohol at the reception.
President Rouhani has criticized the law and similar attempts to enforce morality, stating in a speech in northern Iran that the promotion of virtue is not “the prerogative of a select group, a handful taking the moral high ground.” In September, the president—who has promised greater social liberties—also questioned the need to enforce morality when Iranian women are “an educated community,” capable of practicing chastity and virtue on their own.
Police recently arrested several men in connection with four of the acid attacks that appeared to be part of a campaign of violence to punish women deemed “badly veiled.” Hardliners insist that they do not condone the acid attacks and have tried to separate the recent violence from the efforts to address improper veiling.
Thousands of Iranians protested, deploring the acid attacks in a demonstration on October 22. However, a photojournalist covering the protests was detained shortly after his images of the protesters were published around the world, indicating that the some within the government are not fully supportive of the protesters’ goals.
To end these attacks and create a public space that is welcoming to women, Iranian lawmakers should establish a legal framework to protect women from harassment and physical attacks. Such sexual harassment laws do not restrict free speech, but address conduct—including expressive conduct—that creates a hostile environment, intimidates, or could lead to imminent violence.
In addition, the government should foster tolerance of views and speech across the political spectrum—including unpopular speech—for all Iranians, including journalists, as well as tolerance of women to choose how they want to dress and express themselves in public. There should be limits placed on speech, however, that leads directly to violence.
By incorporating these frameworks into their legal system, Iran could better ensure the rights of all Iranians. Improving its record on both women’s rights and other human rights would be useful for Iran at this delicate moment for Iran’s international image, as the November 24 deadline approaches for negotiations with the United States and other powerful nations over Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions.