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Public protests are over but more Iranian women are refusing to wear the hijab


In Iran, public protests against rules forcing women to wear the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, have ended, at least for now. Meanwhile, though, Iranian lawmakers are working on new legislation aimed at toughening the crackdown against women for improper wearing of the hijab. But protesters are still finding new ways to make their voices heard. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul, among the latest battlegrounds are shopping malls and private businesses.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: I reached Tarlan (ph), a 36-year-old researcher and market analyst from Tehran, via WhatsApp. She asked that her family name not be used. She worries about government reprisals for speaking with the media about the protests. Tarlan says the mass demonstrations sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini in police custody last year may have stopped, but the struggle for women's rights is definitely continuing. And it's not hard to see signs that the protests have had an impact. For example, she says for decades, authorities have forced businesses to shut down if they permitted women on the premises without the hijab. In the past, she says, once businesses reopened, they would routinely warn women to wear the headscarf or leave. But now they don't bother.

TARLAN: (Through interpreter) The fact that they decided to shut a major shopping mall in the hope of stopping such acts of civil disobedience and to force women to wear the hijab made us think that once they reopened, the shops would warn us or not let us in. But this is not what happened.

KENYON: Tarlan says there's also a new freedom in restaurants. In the past, if a woman's scarf fell off, a waiter would rush to warn her to put it back on. Now, she says, no one says anything. Iranian lecturer on human rights Moein Khazaeli also consults for human rights organizations in Sweden. I reached him in Malmo, where he told me that the norms of Iranian society are definitely shifting since Mahsa Jina Amini's death. Unfortunately, he says, the government's attitude hasn't changed. Khazaeli says, for instance, officials announced amnesties for thousands of protesters earlier this year. But after reaping the positive publicity, he says they launched a new series of prosecutions against some of those same demonstrators.

MOEIN KHAZAELI: (Through interpreter) Many of them are now facing new charges that they weren't facing in the past, actually. So it's getting even worse since the order by the leader in February that these people should be forgiven.

KENYON: Analysts say hard-liners are pushing for harsher punishment for protesters. And a new law is being drafted that is expected to provide them. Tara Sepehri Far, with Human Rights Watch, says the authorities seem to be particularly worried about female actors and other well-known Iranian women not wearing the hijab because that sends a message to millions of Iranian women that they, too, can discard the headscarf if they want to.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: Over the past month or so, we have seen the judiciary opening cases against several actors, female actors who have appeared in public without the hijab. And the draft law that is being proposed has very clear provisions that in the case of those who can be categorized as public figure, there's a different level of punishment.

KENYON: Sepehri Far says it's hard to see how the huge changes of recent months could be reversed.

SEPEHRI FAR: Public discontent is at an all-time high. The reality is that the message of respect for freedom of choice is getting momentum by the day. It is a transformation that has been in the making. Women have been the lead for that. It's also asserting the agency of women at various layers of the society, including family. And that is not reversible.

KENYON: She doesn't think new legislation will change public attitudes. And she wonders what Iran's hard-liners will try next in their bid to quash displays of what critics call the people's contempt for their leaders.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND TIM SCHAUFERT'S "TIDES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.