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Iranian court sparks controversy by diagnosing hijab protesters with mental illness

Afsaneh Bayegan (
September 22, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Judges in Iran have diagnosed three prominent actresses sentenced for not wearing the hijab as mentally ill, anti-family, and antisocial, prompting top psychologists in the country to condemn the “abuse of psychiatry and psychology in the judiciary.”

The heads of four leading psychiatry boards in the country went public with their criticisms after actresses Azadeh Samadi, Leila Bolukat, and Afsaneh Bayegan were all recently given the diagnoses during their sentencing in a Tehran criminal court.

“The diagnosis of mental disorders is within the competence of a psychiatrist, not a judge. Just as the diagnosis of other diseases is in the competence of doctors, not judges,” the psychiatrists wrote in an open letter to judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei published by Iranian media on July 20.

The three actresses ran afoul of the law after they appeared in recent months in public without wearing headscarves, in violation of the country’s strict hijab requirement that has fueled nationwide protests in recent months.

Many female celebrities have expressed solidarity with the demonstrations that followed the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last September following her arrest for allegedly failing to wear the hijab.

Violators of the hijab requirement can face up to two years in prison, although proposed legislation would increase the maximum sentence to up to three years’ imprisonment for repeat offenders.

Bayegan was given a suspended two-year prison sentence after she appeared at a film ceremony wearing a hat instead of a head scarf. An image of her at the ceremony that she posted on social media was reportedly presented as evidence during her trial.

Additional penalties for the 61-year-old film and television actress included a two-year travel ban, a two-year ban on using the Internet, social media, and mobile services, and a requirement to read and summarize an unnamed book within two months.

Ahead of her sentencing this week, Bayegan announced on July 12 that she was retiring from the “dishonorable field of acting” after she was summoned to court.

Bolukat, 42, was earlier handed a sentence of six months imprisonment, along with a ban on professional activities for two years, on charges she had “damaged public morality and chastity” by posting images of herself without a hijab on social media. Bolukat was also prohibited from leaving the country and ordered to read and provide a summary of an unnamed book within a month.

The 44-year-old Samadi, who was detained after wearing a hat instead of a hijab while attending a funeral, did not receive a prison sentence during her court appearance earlier this month but was denied access to her phone for six months and all her social media accounts were ordered disabled.

The addition of mental health diagnoses of “antisocial and anti-family” behavior alongside the women’s sentencing, requiring regular psychological treatment and certifications of good mental health were judgments that the top psychiatrists say the courts were not qualified to make.

“What is stated in the text of the ruling as an argument for diagnosing a disease called antisocial personality is not proportionate, logical, or convincing,” wrote the heads of the Scientific Association of Psychosomatic Medicine, Scientific Association of Psychiatrists, Scientific Association of Psychotherapy, and the Psychological Association of Iran.

The joint letter added that the diagnosis of “mental illness and anti-family personality” was “unscientific and strange” and was unfathomable to psychiatric professionals.

The letter called on the authorities to amend the sentences against the three actresses.

Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, a Tehran-based lawyer, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda on July 21 that the sentences suggested that “judges in these cases did not fully grasp legal principles or they must have been very nervous and upset at the accused and wanted to sentence [them] to degrading punishments.”

Other actresses have also been targeted with arrests and harassment after protests against the hijab broke out across the Islamic republic following Amini’s death.

Last week, the deputy minister of Islamic culture and guidance, Mohammad Hashemi, announced that the government had taken steps to prevent a film company from hiring an actress who had refused to wear the hijab. While Hashemi did not provide a name, media reports suggested he was referring to 44-year-old Shaghayegh Dehghan, who was charged in June for posting a photo of herself without a hijab on social media.

Citing the pressure of an “angry society,” the award-winning actress Hengamah Ghaziani recently retired at the age of 53 following her arrest for not wearing a head scarf. Actresses Taraneh Alidoosti, 39, and Katayun Riahi, 61, were also arrested.

The acting and film community has rallied around the actresses, with the Association of Directors and the Union of Cinema Producers of Iran issuing a joint letter this week calling the sentences against Bolukat and Samadi an “insult to the conscience of all cinema people.”

“We stand fully alongside all the female actresses of Iranian cinema and filmmakers who are cruelly humiliated by similar rulings,” the letter read.