On Saturday the 8th April Iranian police announced they were installing smart cameras to automatically detect and punish women not wearing the hijab. This article looks at this move in the context of Iranian women’s fight for freedom against a repressive fundamentalist regime, as well as the wider ethics of surveillance.  

Iranian women: the one in the middle wears a hijab, the one on the right a niqab

Firstly, women should have the freedom to wear what they like, as long as it doesn’t harm other people in society. Clearly the mere sight of a woman’s hair does not cause any actual harm, so going unveiled should therefore be allowed in Iran. All the other Muslim nations apart from Afghanistan recognise this fact and respect women’s right to wear what they choose. In this channel’s opinion, women’s right to wear the hijab should be respected, and their right to not wear the hijab should also be respected. Islamic Republic’ hardliners’ arguments against it seem to mainly be reactionary hysteria. For example cleric Ayatollah Mohsen Araki declared that the trend of “improper hijab” is somehow a “new COVID” that is instigated by foreign “enemies.” This type of baseless claim referencing shadowy, outside powers is a stock device used by authoritarian regimes, unable to accept their own people can see their oppression with their own eyes. 

Secondly, this is happening in the broader context of rolling protests ever since the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody last year. Mahsa, 22, was arrested on the 13 September in Tehran by the morality police for breaching Iran’s dress laws, brutally beaten in the police van causing her to collapse and be sent to the hospital, where she died on the 16 September. Her terrible death at the hands of unpopular morality police, inspired massive anti-hijab protests across Iran, and an attempted cover up by the regime who claimed it was a “sudden heart failure.” At least 522 people had lost their lives (though this figure includes pro-regime forces) by January 15th, with many shot or beaten to death by security services and groups of Islamic fundamentalists. Recognising the injustice of women being snatched off the street for not quite covering their head enough, Chief of Police Ahmadreza Radan has suggested prosecutions and impounding women’s vehicles, which simply shows the ultraconservative regime under the Ayatollah Khameini is ignoring the people and doubling down on an unjust law. 

Thirdly, although some Western commentators like to pretend otherwise, the cruel hijab law is everything to do with Islam. Whilst there may be Iran-specific cultural factors to the law, introduced shortly after the 1979 Revolution,the majority of the rationale for the law comes from Islam, which can be simply observed by the fact this is what the regime justifies its actions by. For example, on the 2nd April Iranian President Ayatollah Raisi declared the “Hijab is a religious necessity and a common divine command among all monotheistic religions and Islam’s branches, which protects the individual and society from any harm”. Raisi is actually right that the practice of hijab has been considered a requirement under orthodox Islam for over 1000 years by broad consensus. The Quran, in verse 24:31 commands 

“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment (zīnah) except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap their headcovers (khumurihinna) over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women…”

Additionally, verse 33:59 supports this:

“Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters and the believers’ women to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. This will make it more likely that they will be recognized and not abused.”

These verses are strong evidence on their own that the Quran would like women to dress with their head covered in the manner of the 7th century Arabian tribes it was addressed to. However, Islam is not just composed of the Quran but also tafsir, authoritative commentaries on the Quran. The tafsir of a respected Companion of Muhammad Ibn Abbas further supports this interpretation. See the below extract from the Yaqeen Institute.

“Ibn ʿAbbās, a giant in Qur’anic exegesis and the cousin of the Prophet ﷺ, for instance, explained that this clause meant that everything should be covered except the hands and face. It was also narrated from ʿĀʾishah (rA) that the intended meaning is “what appears from the hands and face.”

In the below hadith (authoritative reported sayings of Muhammad) the women’s action of covering themselves completely, including their heads except their face is applauded by none other than Aisha, the wife of Muhammad. 

“By Allah, I never saw any women better than the women of the Anṣār or stronger in their confirmation of Allah’s Book! When Sūrat al-Nūr was revealed, ‘and to draw their khumur over their chests’, they all tore up their waist-wraps and covered themselves with them.”

Hadiths are almost as important as the Quran in forming Islam and this hadith, and others like it, leave the hijab’s necessity in Islam beyond doubt, or at the very least places the burden of proof upon those seeking to claim otherwise. So the Iranian regime is correct about its necessity in Islam but wrong to try to force it on women. No state has the right to force any individual to follow a religion, or its conception of a religion. It is fundamentally unjust because it is a denial of freedom of expression, which is what makes us humans, rather than simply cogs in a machine.  

Finally, to return to smart surveillance, or simply surveillance in general, it is clear that itis simply a tool. It is not good or evil in itself. CCTV cameras can be used to prevent or punish murder, robbery or rape, which is unquestionably a positive. They can also be used by powerful clerics to deny young women their freedom of expression in the name of a regressive creed, which is unquestionably a negative. It is the intention behind it which matters the most.