Iran’s government is dealing with a wave of protest in the only way it knows: by cracking down on protesters and shutting down criticism of the theocratic regime. Instead of addressing protesters’ concerns, it is trying to shift the focus of attention to the behaviour of women, unleashing the morality police to enforce even stricter dress and behaviour codes. Embattled activists continue to resist in any way they can, but they need as much international support as they can get. In their dealings with Iran, democratic states must remain faithful to the human rights they value domestically, prioritising the protection of Iranian women activists under attack.

The hollow and apparently bruised face of Sepideh Rashno spoke volumes. In a brief televised appearance on 30 July, the young artist and writer confessed her supposed crime: riding a bus without wearing a head covering. Another woman had verbally and physically confronted her, and the exchange was captured on a widely circulated video. The authorities arrested Sepideh while they lavished praise on her attacker.

Sepideh’s confession was clearly forced: she was reading from a script after being mistreated in detention, where she was also denied access to a lawyer. Since her brief TV appearance, women activists have staged flashmob protests, holding placards asking ‘where is Sepideh Rashno?’.

Sepideh faces absurdly inflated charges of encouraging ‘corruption and prostitution’, ‘propaganda activity against the Islamic Republic’ and planning to ‘commit a crime against the country’s security through communication with foreigners’ – just for showing her hair.

Sepideh’s case is only one of many in the context of a renewed crackdown on dissent that has turned women into frontline targets.

A renewal of repression

Iran’s theocratic state has long denied basic human rights, and particularly for women. But things have got worse under the rule of President Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric elected in 2021. Iran is no democracy and political parties are banned, so politicians group into more or less reformist or hard-line factions. Raisi replaced reformist President Hassan Rouhani through an election in which any credible opponents were prevented from standing by the unelected and increasingly powerful Guardian Council.

All key institutions are now controlled by hard-liners. Ultimate power resides in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi is a well-known associate of Khamenei, who was one of Raisi’s seminary instructors. Khamenei has a history of using political appointments to suppress critics. Raisi has been identified as Khamenei’s potential successor – and may be trying to ensure he gets the job by leading a crackdown in line with the Supreme Leader’s tastes.

Sadly, the concern Raisi’s election win sparked among Iranian human rights activists is being proved justified. This May, the government reacted with lethal violence to protests sparked by food price rises and the collapse of a building. Under pressure, with bleak economic prospects unchanged as talks remain stalled on a nuclear deal that might ease sanctions, the government is doing the most predictable thing possible: ramping up the repression.

A clear sign this was the chosen path came in July, when the authorities detained and jailed Jafar Panahi, one of Iran’s most celebrated filmmakers.

Panahi was arrested when he went to the prosecutor’s office to ask about the status of two other detained filmmakers, Mostafa Aleahmad and Mohammad Rasoulof, arrested in connection with the May protests. It isn’t the first time Panahi has fallen foul of the authorities: he was arrested in 2010 and spent two months in jail before receiving a conditional release and a ban on filmmaking. He continued to work informally, smuggling his internationally acclaimed films out of Iran.

Panahi’s renewed detention sent the message that no one is too famous to be protected from the consequences of openly questioning the regime. His detention has been internationally condemned but the authorities appear unruffled. Instead they doubled down, announcing their intention to publish a list of banned filmmakers. Previously the ministry of culture had only targeted individual filmmakers; now it has set its sights on the industry as a whole.

Other high-profile dissidents have been targeted in a fresh wave of arrests and detentions. People are typically accused of being foreign agents working to undermine Iran’s security.

A further, even starker signal came with the recent imposition of the death sentence on two young female LGBTQI+ activists, Zahra Seddiqi Hamadani and Elham Choubdar. This was a grim innovation: they are the first women in Iran to receive death sentences for their sexual orientation. The regime wants to make clear it’s prepared to go as far as it takes.

Crackdown zeroes in on women

While no one is safe, women in particular are on the firing line, with mandatory head coverings the chosen instrument of repression. In August, Raisi signed a decree further tightening the existing ‘hijab and chastity’ law that determines how women may dress and behave in public. Women can be punished for posting online photos without wearing a head covering, among many other offences. Women judged not to be in compliance can be fined, fired from their jobs or banned from public places and transport – something that can only further reduce the visibility of women in the public sphere.

Instead of addressing protesters’ concerns, including on economic and environmental matters, the government is trying to switch the focus of public attention towards women’s behaviour.

Women have been arrested for the crime of dancing in public, and numerous hair salons – one of the few places where women could gather more freely – have been closed down. Iran’s notorious Guidance Patrols – known as the ‘morality police’ – have become increasingly active. Videos appear to show its officers forcing women into vans if they are deemed to be disobeying modesty laws.

Online freedoms are also declining. Feminists and their organisations have reported being targeted on Instagram by pro-government personnel, who follow them and then report them to the authorities. Some women are being forced to log off permanently.

At the same time, the government is using technology against women. In September, it announced a plan to use facial recognition technology to identify women who don’t comply with appearance and behaviour rules. Enabled by its widespread use of biometric ID technology, introduced in 2015, the government is further tightening the net around women.

A convenient target?

Iranian activists are used to repression, and they are used to resisting. Many women, particularly young and urban women, have resisted for years in any way they could, including through individual or small protests in which they remove their headscarves and share photos online, receiving support from the Iranian diaspora. More quietly, many women have long tested the limits by pushing their head coverings back as far as possible and dressing less conservatively.

While the previous administration intervened on some occasions, Rouhani didn’t endorse a heavy-handed approach on the grounds that he didn’t feel virtue could be promoted through violence. Raisi is clearly of the view that it can.

His current crackdown seems a clear attempt to distract people from the administration’s wider failures, abundantly exhibited by this year’s protests. Instead of addressing protesters’ concerns, including on economic and environmental matters, the government is trying to switch the focus of public attention towards women’s behaviour. This may prop up support from conservative sections of society and send a sign that the government is still in control.

Despite the challenges, resistance perseveres, particularly on social media. Ahead of the government-declared National Day of Hijab and Chastity, 12 July, the #No2Hijab hashtag was widely shared in Iran and among the diaspora. In August, over 1,000 Iranians took a risk when they signed a letter to support Sepideh Rashno. Cautiously, women are still taking to the streets.

Civil society outside Iran is trying to make sure the government doesn’t get away with its repression. In May, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights demanded the release of detained women’s rights activists. Two months later, 23 global and regional human rights organisations condemned the online attacks against feminist activists.

More international pressure needed

The government isn’t listening, but that is no reason to keep quiet; rather, there is a need to speak louder. International solidarity serves multiple purposes, including – as detained activists have acknowledged over the years – keeping up morale, assuring them they are not alone and boosting their resilience.

But democratic governments must show more substantial support.

Iran’s international relations are complex. It competes for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia and has grown closer to fellow rogue state Russia, but at the same time it appears to be trying not to completely close the door on the west. As they negotiate with Iran, democratic states must push for commitments on human rights.

Democratic states should urge the release of all those detained for expressing dissent and above all, demand the protection of women’s fundamental rights. The fact that there are many other priorities on the current international policy agenda is not a reason to let Iranian women down.


  • The Iranian government must stop punishing attempts to exercise the fundamental freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.
  • Social media companies should improve their content moderation to better protect women from online abuse.
  • International civil society should mobilise solidarity with those facing the brunt of repression in Iran, and particularly with women activists.

Cover photo by Twitter/Khosro Kalbasi