Iranian women tell why they openly flout hijab rules

"We Iranian girls are not afraid of anything anymore," one told ABC News.

February 16, 2024, 7:26 PM

"We Iranian girls are not afraid of anything anymore," said Maedeh, a 26-year-old sports trainer who was not wearing a required headscarf when she spoke with ABC News on a recent reporting trip to Tehran.

She was one of several Iranian women who risked speaking to correspondent Mola Lenghi while not wearing the hijab, an offense punishable by the regime's morality police.

It was in September 2022 when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died mysteriously in state custody after allegedly violating Iran's hijab law, setting off protests across the country.

Human rights groups say more than 20,000 people were arrested and more than 500 killed in those demonstrations.

In the time since, relatively few Western journalists have reported from Iran while political arrests and executions have skyrocketed.

A United Nations expert panel reported that at least 834 people were executed in 2023, the highest single-year total in eight years. Eight of those executions were associated with the nationwide protests, the U.N. experts said.

Reports show executions aren't slowing in 2024.

PHOTO: This Iranian woman, Niloufar, says "We support Palestine."
This Iranian woman, Niloufar, says "We support Palestine."
Colm O’Molloy/ABC News
PHOTO: Women on a Tehran street.
Women on a Tehran street.
Colm O’Molloy/ABC News

ABC News did not see members of the morality police who arrested Amini on Tehran's streets, and plenty of women flouted the head covering rule, walking in public without a hijab.

Even so, Iranian women reported receiving text message warnings when government-monitored feeds show a woman is not wearing a hijab.

Iranian women said after they receive a first warning, and then when traffic cameras capture them without proper head coverings in their vehicles, they are compelled to face a judge.

They also told ABC News a reporting system allows people to snap photos of women without hijabs and send them to authorities.

Officials, they said, also patrol public spaces, like malls, cafes, and shops, to crack down on violators.

An Iranian source with knowledge of the system said the price chiefly comes in the form of financial punishment since the protests sparked by Amini's death.

"Judges tend to condemn the convicted to the financial penalties," as opposed to physical punishment, the person said.

Hamayra, an Iranian-born woman who grew up outside the country and was back in Iran on holiday, told ABC News that choosing not to wear her hijab is "the least I can do."

She said the head covering is worn far less than it was when she spent time in Iran as a young woman.

"There's always an element that I might get arrested, but you know what, we need to push back," she said. Today, "[Iranian women] are much, much braver. I think they're not scared any more."

Amid the cultural tensions, Iranians are facing challenging conditions at home as their government squares off with the United States in a number of Middle East proxy conflicts that orbit around a war between Israel and Hamas raging in Gaza. In central Tehran this past Sunday, the Islamic regime marked 45 years since the 1979 revolution which swept it into to power.

PHOTO: Iranian President Raisi addresses the crowd in Freedom Square.
Iranian President Raisi addresses the crowd in Freedom Square.
Colm O’Molloy/ABC News
PHOTO: Salman, whose corner store sells nuts, says “Prices go up every day.”
Salman, whose corner store sells nuts, says “Prices go up every day.”
Colm O’Molloy/ABC News

Iranians in Tehran told ABC News they support the Palestinian cause, echoing a call from President Ebrahim Raisi, who, in his anniversary speech, said Israel should be expelled from the United Nations and called the U.S. Iran's principal adversary.

While a relative few are willing to speak to the rights of women, airing grievances over economic conditions is more widespread as Iranians are confronted with higher prices for basics.

"Awful," Mehdi, a dessert vendor, told ABC News about the state of the economy. "We earn just enough not to die."

PHOTO: Fruit at a Tehran bazaar.
Fruit at a Tehran bazaar.
Colm O’Molloy/ABC News

The economy is "sick" and "a concern for the entire society," said cinematographer Niloufar, age 35.

"Our young people are under a lot of pressure," she said. A home, a car, and marriage are all "far-fetched dreams."

Data support the sentiment on the ground. Inflation has hovered around 40% for the last three years and hit the highest level in two years at the end of 2023, when the Central Bank of Iran reported a 45% inflation rate for the month of October. Economic analysts estimated the rate was worse than the central bank reported.

"Unfortunately, this past year, with no exaggeration, [inflation] has been day by day," the cinematographer, who's also an author, said.

Young Iranians are fleeing the country. The nation experienced the highest rate of emigration to wealthy nations on the globe, a 141% increase between 2020 and 2021, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The latest labor report from Iranian authorities claims the unemployment rate is down to 7.6% from 10.6%. State statistics show as many as 3.6 million fewer people are being counted as job seekers than were in the labor pool four years ago, which explains the downtick.

Sasan Karimi, an adjunct professor at the University of Tehran, said U.S. sanctions imposed after the Trump administration withdrew from a multilateral nuclear deal in 2018 are to blame for poor economic conditions in Iran. Karimi considers the sanctions regime and the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s as having been the nation's two biggest challenges since the 1979 revolution.

"Many people worldwide, including Mr. Bolton, [said] that the Islamic Republic will not see the 40th anniversary of its revolution. But we [will] see tomorrow the 45th of this event," Karimi said, referring to John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Donald Trump's national security adviser.

Economic pessimism, and some outliers on the hijab, have not visibly undermined political support for the ayatollah, the supreme leader and highest-ranking Iranian cleric, whose portrait is on wide display, or the government of Raisi.

PHOTO: A woman holds a portrait of the Iranian supreme leader.
A woman holds a portrait of the Iranian supreme leader.
Colm O’Molloy/ABC News

As tensions between the U.S. and Iranian-backed militants in the Middle East continue to flare, with the two sides exchanging fire in the Red Sea, Syria, and Iraq, marchers in Tehran backed the Iranian regime's policy abroad and some even burned American and Israeli flags. They oppose U.S. support of Israel in its campaign against Hamas.

"We support Palestine, because Palestine is a part of Islam," a marcher told ABC News.

A man who rallied with his son said, "We came here to say that we still stand by our revolution of 45 years ago. And as our leader has said, we must lead our young people into this path to secure the future of the Islamic Revolution."

PHOTO: Iranians celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Islamic Republic.
Iranians celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Islamic Republic.
Colm O’Molloy/ABC News

"Today, at the age of 45, we declare that the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on neither Eastern nor Western policy. It does not take orders from the East, it does not take them from the West, it does not take them from any powerful country," Raisi told demonstrators, many of whom waved the Iranian flag.

PHOTO: A commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military wing charged with protecting the 45-year old regime, said "The Americans should not mess with Iran."
A commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military wing charged with protecting the 45-year old regime, said "The Americans should not mess with Iran."
Colm O’Molloy/ABC News

On March 1, Iranians will vote in elections for parliament and seats on a powerful executive council that appoints the country's supreme leader. Candidates for Iranian elections are heavily vetted by the government.

But turnout has dropped over the years. The Ministry of Interior reported turnout of 43% in the 2020 election that preceded Raisi's election as president in 2021, the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic.

Many Iranians told ABC News they didn't plan to vote because they largely lacked faith in the country's political process.

ABC News' Mola Lenghi and Cindy Smith contributed to this report.