Iran’s hijab war continues with business shutdowns and surveillance cameras

In a new move that some Iranians are calling “religious apartheid”, authorities are refusing services and imposing fines on women who refuse to wear the Islamic headscarf. Iran’s newly appointed police chief has even announced that surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence will be used to detect women without hijabs and issue penalties. These are just the latest strategies that Iran’s religious authorities are using to try to enforce Islamic dress code laws in Iran after months of protest have broken them down. Iranian women, however, say they’ve seen little evidence of the crackdown.

Left: An Iranian woman in a public space in front of a sign that calls for women to continue wearing the Islamic hijab. Right: Two young Iranian women without hijabs in front of a police car.
Left: An Iranian woman in a public space in front of a sign that calls for women to continue wearing the Islamic hijab. Right: Two young Iranian women without hijabs in front of a police car. © Observers

Over the past month, the Iranian regime has shifted its strategy to increase the pressure on women who refuse to adhere to Islamic dress norms. Authorities are compelling business owners, as well as public and private offices, to enforce headscarf laws on their premises or risk being shut down. This strategy is pitting citizens against each other, as one of our Observers in Iran told us, instead of relying on the notorious morality police enforce the hijab law on the streets.

A video shared on Twitter on April 16 shows an agent at Bushehr Airport refusing to issue a boarding pass to women without the hijab.

Reports emerge daily of restaurants, cafes, malls, pharmacies, and other establishments across Iran being shut down for failing to comply with hijab regulations. And with the arrival of warmer weather, the struggle between Iranian women and Iranian authorities is expected to escalate.

Iran’s newly appointed chief of police, Ahmad-Reza Radan – who has been sanctioned by the West for human rights abuses during 2009 protests in Iran – issued a threat that failing to adhere to hijab regulations starting on April 15 would not be tolerated. Still, videos shared online show Iranian women fearlessly going out in public without headscarves.

A video shared on Twitter on April 14 shows metro staff in Mashhad, Iran refusing to let women ride the metro without a hijab.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to two Iranian women to find out how this new pressure is affecting them.

‘Authorities are trying to turn shopkeepers against people, but they won’t succeed’

Pendar (not her real name) works in tourism in a city in northern Iran.

What I wear these days is just a shirt and trousers, nothing else. And I have never had a problem with it. During the last Nowruz holiday [March 21 to April 2] I travelled to many cities and visited many tourist attractions and never had a problem.

The only place I was asked to cover my head was at a shopping mall on the road near Qom [Editor’s note: one of the holiest cities for Shiite Muslims in Iran]. The mall has been shut down twice in the last few weeks because their female customers were not wearing headscarves. I did not. I covered my head with a bag for a few seconds. Outside, no one was wearing a hijab. They just put something on their head quickly to go in and buy a coffee, then immediately took it off when they came outside – that was funny.

Authorities are trying to turn shopkeepers against people, but they won’t succeed. As far as I can see, people are being very supportive of women without hijabs. On the other hand, videos are being released from airports or metro stations showing women without hijabs being refused service, but we have the feeling that the Islamic Republic is doing this mainly for its supporters to say: “Look, we haven't given up, we're fighting back.” It’s mostly propaganda. But in reality, when I ride the metro, go shopping and drink coffee in the coffee shops, they don't dare to harass women, at least until now.

If you ask me, they can't do anything about it. There are millions of women who refuse the obligatory hijab, and the Islamic Republic has neither the manpower nor the money to go after these millions of women. That Saturday [April 15] came and went, and I wore the same outfit as every other day. I had no fear and felt even more support from the people on the street. People smiled at me, sometimes showing each other victory signs. I even crossed in front of some police, they didn’t dare to say anything to me.

‘People will boycott any shop that asks us to wear a hijab’

Helen (not her real name) is a 29-year-old student in a city in northern Iran.

From the first days of the revolution [Editor’s note: in September 2022, after the death of Mahsa Amini], I took off my headscarf. Honestly, the first force that drove me to do so wasn't the demand for freedom, but anger. For a long time, I kept a headscarf in my bag or I wore a hat. Now, I haven't worn a headscarf or a hat for weeks. The only time I had a problem was a few weeks ago at the airport. They made me cover my head with a hat to give me my boarding pass. But in the streets, there was nothing but support from people. 

Since the Islamic Republic has stepped up its efforts to force women to wear the Islamic hijab again, I am honestly a bit stressed about what's going to happen, and I see more and more friends carrying headscarves in their bags "just in case". However, I'll no longer change my outfit as the Islamists demand of me. I'm sure if they put more pressure on us, it'll only lead to more protests. I also don't think the pressure on businesses is working. On the one hand, I have the impression that people stick together like a chain and support each other, but on the other hand, I know that if a shop owner asks his female customers to wear the hijab, people would boycott him, so from an economic point of view, it's also not wise for the shops to pressure people.

Iranian officials, including General Radan, announced that the Islamic Republic plans to use surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence technology to identify and track women who choose not to wear the Islamic hijab in public areas. However, despite these claims, no evidence has surfaced to confirm the government's ability to implement such a measure.

In this tweet, a user calls on Iranians to boycott a shop in Rasht, Iran which requires its customers to wear a hijab.

Supporters of the regime are also able to report those who don’t comply with regulations to police. They can input, for example, the licence plate number of a person who isn’t wearing the hijab on an official platform. The owner of the car will receive a text message and have to pay a fine. But Iranians have found a way around this technology. This platform has been around since 2019, but just recently has become a widespread tool for citizens to report others to Islamic Republic authorities.

Pendar, our Observer, explains:

If people see a car with a woman wearing a hijab or chador in it, we report the number plate to the platform so their database will not work. They will get a lot of response from the hijabi people, possibly their supporters, because this platform accused them of not wearing the hijab. The chaos will make the platform completely ineffective. 

The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to speak to several sources in Tehran and Isfahan who confirmed that their relatives who wear black chadors in the car have received tickets and text messages from the official platform claiming they had failed to wear a headscarf.

According to a recent statement by Saeed Montazeralmahdi, spokesperson for the Islamic Republic’s police force, the authorities have allegedly received thousands of text messages from citizens reporting vehicles with non-compliant hijab attire. 

On April 15 alone, the police reportedly also closed down 138 shops and 18 restaurants where customers were not following the Islamic hijab dress code. The FRANCE 24 Observers team was unable, however, to independently verify these figures.