Discussion of the Islamic veil took up a tiny part of books on Islamic law, or Sharia, before the beginning of the last century. Covering one’s head was mainly considered a precondition for women to conduct certain rituals such as daily prayers. There were discussions about general rules for dress, namely that men and women should cover specific parts of their bodies. Today, the topic has become central to many debates about religion in Iran, as well as many other countries with a significant Muslim population. For instance, Iran’s police recently announced that cars driven by “poorly veiled” women would be confiscated.
In Iran, veiling gained significance in the early decades of the 1900s, when a majority of people found themselves under pressure to give up their customary dress and wear Western clothes. Following Turkey's "hat law" of 1925, a similar law to unveil women was passed by Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1936 and brutally implemented. When people protested the law, government forces responded with bullets. Hundreds died in a single protest in the northeastern city of Mashhad that year. Hence, the veil became highly politicized — and symbolic. Clerics reacted to the efforts to undermine the veil with a counteroffensive that emphasized the veil's religious importance. Between 1911 and 1969, religious scholars wrote dozens of new treatises about the centrality of the veil to Shiite teachings, making it a pivotal symbolic element of Shiite Islam.
On the other end of the spectrum, a few months after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the veil became a controversial issue again. Unveiled women were seen as anti-revolutionary as the veil became a symbol for revolutionary zeal. Indeed, in 1980, government buildings in Iran denied entry to unveiled women, and soon after, all women had to cover their heads in public spaces.
Over three decades after the Islamic Revolution, the veil is still important to the Iranian state as a symbol of political allegiance and an indicator of the Islamic Republic’s commitment to Islamic values. The prevailing view is that religious symbols should be preserved, especially in the public sphere, to guarantee the support of both traditional clerics and lay people. A compromise by the government on this matter would be interpreted as a political defeat and an eye-catching political victory for the opposition. Hence, no political actor is willing to take on the matter of the veil.
There are, however, two parallel and gradual, albeit steady, trends that are paving the way for more freedoms and a final lifting of the mandatory veil. First, there are efforts to depoliticize the veil, and second, the religious validity of its coerced use is being increasingly questioned.
Iran's conservative media outlets and state TV have begun to redefine political loyalty to the Islamic Revolution by broadening the criteria to include unveiled women. The standards of loyalty are no longer as demanding as they once were. Even if one does not espouse "proper" veiling, one can still be a patriot who loves the country and its government.
The previous narrow definition of political loyalty naturally resulted in the decline in the number of active supporters of the state during the past two decades. Hence, the Islamic Republic has started to slacken the criteria and include loosely veiled women to increase its supporter figures. As a result, the veil is beginning to lose its political significance as a sign of being in favor of the state, and becoming an individual and personal choice with no political connotations.
Indeed, in November 2012, referring to some women who allegedly lacked “proper” Islamic headscarves while attending a ceremony to welcome his visit to a northeastern city in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “What should we do with them? Is it advisable to reject them? Is it right to reject them? No, their hearts are attached to this camp and their souls are attached to our goals and values.”
There are tremendous ongoing efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the Iranian state’s requirement for women to wear the veil. Though a majority of clerics believe the veil is a religious obligation, there is controversy over whether the state is allowed to enforce its use.
There is an increasing number of clerics who are adopting the view that though the veil is indeed a religious obligation for individual women, it should not be imposed by the state. There are sophisticated jurisprudential discussions that have found Sharia does not require the state to enforce the veil. Indeed, as recently as May of this year, calls for suspending veil enforcement gained more momentum from Muhammad Reza Zaeri, a young but popular cleric who is politically close to the conservative camp. He argues from an entirely religious perspective that enforcement of the Islamic veil has a reverse effect upon people’s overall religiosity: “If you want people to wear the veil, do not force them to wear it.” This kind of argument opens the doors of change without creating the impression that the state has retreated from its revolutionary and religious principles. The fact that Zaeri expressed his views on Iranian state TV is extremely meaningful.
The depoliticization of the veil or its marginalization in religion will, however, not be accomplished by the actions of the Iranian state or clerics alone. It requires the other side of the dispute to compromise, too. As long as the opposition uses the veil as a means to mobilize public support inside Iran and international sympathy outside the country, the Islamic Republic will continue to resist change — even if all the doctrinal grounds have been prepared.