The Iranian government’s preoccupation with hijab continues, from controlling ‘guidelines’ issued on women’s dress in workplaces, universities and on the streets. This obsession, however, seeks to target civil liberties, not protect religious values.
Debate on the imperative of observing the Islamic dress code, or hijab, has been ongoing in Iran since the advent of the 1979 revolution, writes Kourosh Ziabari.
It seems that not a day passes in Iran’s blistering summer without the state media publishing something new about the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi’s plans to counter the alleged corruption of social morality through women’s lax compliance with the government’s strict hijab mandate.
Debate on the imperative of observing the Islamic dress code, or hijab, has been ongoing since the advent of the 1979 revolution. There are few priorities, like the way women should dress, that Iran’s theocracy treats as a life-and-death urgency. Not even the desolate state of the national economy, spiralling poverty, unfettered inflation and human capital flight precipitated by the traction of nepotism on different levels of governance, take such centre stage.
The intensity of the conversation has usually varied under different administrations. Pro-reform presidents Mohammad Khatami in early 2000s and Hassan Rouhani recently, contained the fever of the ultra-conservatives and refused to allow the hijab battle to become a political priority. But the hardline presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Raisi, despite paying lip service to the ideals of freedom and equality, have pandered to making the lives of women more difficult in the public sphere over their choice of dress.
To many, it may seem obvious that the Iranian government focuses on the hijab, after all, it is an Islamic establishment with religious tenets constituting the core of the social, political, judicial, and economic system.
One might argue the leadership is determined to cultivate ethics in everyday life and demand that women adhere to what the Islamic faith requires.
But the convenient counterargument that strikes down any such fallacy is that there is no other Islamic country anywhere in the world that makes conformity with the hijab codes compulsory, and resorts to violence, propaganda, police vans, fines and prison terms to proliferate morality. If the Taliban in Afghanistan can be cited as an exception, even such a conservative state as Saudi Arabia has forsaken its hijab orthodoxies and is embracing a more inclusive understanding of Islam and the Sharia law.
The Iranian government’s hijab mania is exceeding the limits of religious advocacy.
In June, local media reported that the morality police officers had fired several bullets into the leg of Reza Moradkhani, a former national boxing champion, after he intervened to deter them from harassing his wife in a Tehran park over her dressing style and loosely-worn headscarf.
The Initiative for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, an influential religious watchdog that was relatively dormant under the moderate president Hassan Rouhani, has had a comeback under Raisi. It is issuing a list of spine-chilling guidelines on how women should dress in the workplace and other public places, and how this should be regulated.
Some of these playbooks of “ethical conduct” portend the relegation of Iran to the shadowy years of 1980s, when women were amongst the first targets of a hot-blooded revolutionary zeal to promulgate “pure Islam”. Vigilantes would aggressively confront women on the streets, at times even attacking them if they did not accept to “correct” their appearance in a more modest fashion.
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In the newly-issued instructions, particulars of “proper” hijab and conduct are laid out in unprecedented detail. For instance, female employees are warned against using perfume, wearing makeup, and talking to their male colleagues about issues unrelated to work. In addition to the specifications of the length of their dresses and dimensions of their headscarves, it is even stipulated that the administrators of government offices in which female employees do not comply with the codes, can be fired.
The Raisi administration has also given carte blanche to universities to target female students dressing in ways deemed not conservative enough, and to take disciplinary action against them.
Students have been protesting what they believe is a conversion of university campuses into “military barracks” as campus patrols have been making rounds, cautioning students over what they should and shouldn’t wear. Unsurprisingly, student activists have been coming under increased pressure.
That is not where the convolution ends. The police summons women passengers of private vehicles if they remove their headscarves while driving. Since early 2019 until July, 300,000 car drivers received text warnings on their phones over the “crime” of removing hijab, and signed affidavits that they won’t repeat it.
Whilst the latest figures on the police initiative have not been released, it is still very much in force. Every day there are noticeable queues of women in front of police departments, being forced to commit keeping their headscarves on while driving, or consenting to their cars being interdicted.
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Across the country, a detested morality police squad known as “Gasht-e Ershad” or “guidance patrol,” in green vans, are trained to apprehend women whose dressing is interpreted to be un-Islamic. Hundreds of them are given the power to arrest scores of “offenders,” often through force.
Scenes of women resisting arrest, passers-by intervening to rescue them, and ensuing skirmishes are becoming recurrent in hotspots where these vans are stationed.
For the Islamic Republic, investing in the dogma of compulsory hijab, the concern is not upholding a religious principle, as Islam does not require its maxims to be implemented coercively. In reality it is a pathway for the government to consolidate political power.
The bottom line is that for the Iranian government, the hijab is mostly a matter of trying to tighten the grip around the civil society. The aim is to maintain an ironclad control over a restive population and make sure the country’s dynamic youth does not pluck up the courage to make further demands on civil liberties. The leadership recognises that if it makes a concession on its unpopular hijab mandate, the people will ask for more freedoms.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iran correspondent of Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.
Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari