The secretary of Iran’s Virtue Promotion and Vice Prevention Authority announced in a recent interview that the Iranian government plans to use surveillance technology against women in public places. This comes after conservative President Ebrahim Raisi signed a new decree on August 15 that further tightens how women in the Islamic Republic can dress. According to the regulation, violations will be punishable by a fine, while female government employees will be fired if their social media profile photos do not comply with Islamic law.
In Iran, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women have been required by law to wear the hijab in public. However, over the years, many Iranian women have broken this rule while pushing the boundaries of what Iranian authorities consider acceptable clothing.
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The new regulation came into force a month after National Hijab and Chastity Day sparked widespread protests by women sharing videos on social media of themselves on the streets, buses and trains without head coverings. Iranian authorities have responded to protests in recent weeks with arrests, detentions and forced confessions on television.
“The Iranian government has long toyed with the idea of using facial recognition to identify people who break the law,” said Azáde Akbarí, a researcher at the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands. “The regime combines violent ‘old-fashioned’ forms of totalitarian control disguised in new technologies,” she added.
Women face harassment
Some of the women arrested for violating the new regulation were identified after videos of them being harassed on public transport for not wearing the hijab properly were posted online. 28-year-old Sepíde Rašnová was arrested after a video spread on social networks, in which she faces insults from fellow passengers due to her “inappropriate clothing”. Then other fellow passengers push him off the bus. According to the human rights group Hrana, Rašnová was beaten after her arrest and then forced to apologize on television to the passenger who had cursed her.
This is not the first such case. In 2014, six Iranians – three men and three women – were sentenced to one year in prison and 91 lashes after a video of them dancing to Pharrell Williams’ Happy in Tehran garnered more than 150,000 views.
Since 2015, the Iranian government has been gradually introducing biometric ID cards, which include a chip that stores data such as iris images, fingerprints and facial images. Researchers fear that this information, along with facial recognition technology, will now be used to identify dress code violators, both on the streets and in cyberspace.
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“There is now a large part of the Iranian population in this national bank of biometric data, as many public services are becoming dependent on biometric identity cards,” Akbari said. “Thus the government has access to all faces; he knows where people come from and can easily find them. A person in a viral video can be identified within seconds,” she added.
“Ebrahim Raisi is a real ideologue,” said Annabelle Sreberny, professor emeritus at the Center for Iranian Studies at London’s SOAS. “Iran is facing dire economic and environmental problems. The inflation rate is now 50 percent, but the government has decided to focus on women’s rights,” she continued. “I think it’s part and parcel of a failing government that just doesn’t address these huge infrastructure, economic and environmental problems. And women are considered a soft target,” she concluded.