Several residents of the northern Iranian city of Royan were horrified recently when they visited their local cemetery and found the gravestone images of their late mothers and other female relatives covered with paint.
"We went to the cemetery to say a prayer [for our deceased relatives] and we were faced with that," resident Fatemeh Haji Ahmad was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.
"Seeing the tombstone without the picture of my mother was shocking," she added. "My mother’s only wish was to have her image on her tombstone."
The aggrieved relatives immediately complained to cemetery officials and city authorities about what they saw on October 22, Iranian media reported. Following further public outrage at the actions, the images were restored, with the cemetery's board apologizing for the “mistake.”
Images posted on social media appeared to show that the white paint that had covered the images of the four deceased women had been removed.
Haji Ahmadi said residents found out following an inquiry that the cemetery board was responsible for the decision to cover the images.
“They said that placing the images of women on tombstones is not religiously correct or customary," she quoted board members as stating.
“If that is true, why is it fine in all other places [in Iran] and such a decision is made [only] in Royan?” she asked.
Ruhollah Mazandarani, another Royan resident who launched a complaint with police after finding the image of his deceased mother covered with paint, blasted the action in an interview with IRNA.
“This behavior is questionable, both morally and legally,” he said, adding that “it showed clear disrespect to the deceased and their families.”
IRNA quoted several senior clerics, including Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili, as saying that putting images of deceased women on their graves as long as the hijab rule is respected is not a violation of Islamic law.
On social media, many people -- including men -- criticized the decision as emblematic of the disregard for the rights of women in the Islamic republic, including discriminatory laws and state-imposed restrictions on them.
Among them was journalist Faezeh Abbasi, who said, “There is no limit to misogyny here [in Iran].”
Women are deprived of equal rights in areas such as divorce and child custody.
Iranian women also need the permission of their fathers or husbands to travel and they have to cover their hair and body when in public.
Women have for a long time pushed back against such discriminatory practices and laws while calling for more rights.
The rise of social media has provided women’s rights defenders with a platform to increasingly challenge the restrictions.
On October 26, the head of Royan’s city council, Kambakhsh Salari, announced that the images of the women at the cemetery had been restored.
He said the cemetery’s board had also apologized to the families affected.
"It was one individual’s mistake," Royan Governor Ali Shadman said earlier this week, adding that the tombstones had been fixed “in the shortest time possible.”
“The tombs belong to elderly women, but even if they were young -- since their images are with full hijab -- there is no problem with them,” he said.
In past years, graves of members of the Baha’i faith have reportedly been desecrated in Iran.
In 2014, the International Baha’i community accused Iran of excavating a cemetery in the southern city of Shiraz where dozens of Baha'i followers are buried.
Baha’is face persecution in Iran, where their faith is not officially recognized.