As the administration of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi faces discontent over increasingly difficult economic conditions, the government is ratcheting up agitprop around compulsory hijab, the Islamic dress code, in what many Iranians say is a bid to divert public attention from the nation’s day-to-day hardships.
The government's efforts to enforce hijab rules are divisive in Iranian society with its outward-looking young population and liberal-minded middle class.
On July 12, as the government hyped “chastity and hijab week,” thousands of Iranian women pushed the envelope of their traditional social roles and recorded themselves walking around the streets of Tehran and other cities with their headscarves removed, risking stern police warnings and arrest. The women’s collective action was a bid to express their unhappiness with the authorities' increasing pressure over hijab compliance. The videos have gone viral on social media accompanied by hashtags defying the ironclad mandate.
Last month, Shargh Daily reported on what is believed to be the most violent encounter so far between the morality police enforcing the hijab mandate and ordinary citizens. In early June a 22-year-old officer shot a former boxing champion at least four times after he intervened to prevent his wife from being harassed over her dressing style while the couple were on a stroll at Pardisan Park in Tehran.
The Initiative for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, whose namesake in Saudi Arabia has seen its powers substantially curtailed since 2019, has introduced new regulations that will beef up surveillance over female employees at government agencies and stipulates the dismissal of administrators whose staff don’t strictly observe the hijab codes. The Raisi administration has allocated a budget of $3.8 million to the powerful religious entity.
An entire department of Iran’s police called “Gasht-e Ershad” (guidance patrol in Persian) is tasked with enforcing the government’s compulsory hijab codes. The unpopular vice squad arrests hundreds of women every year for dressing in ways deemed insufficiently Islamic, though the hazy requirements are quite arbitrary and the officers decide who to chastise and who to let go on a whim.
Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative Muslim nations, has ditched its hijab orthodoxy and is granting increased freedoms to women. Iran remains one of the last Muslim-majority countries in which the Islamic dress code is compulsory and the government resorts to force to perpetuate. Although there are nuances, all women must wear headscarves and be covered with full-length attire at all times.
Shortly after the 1979 revolution, hijab was declared obligatory and over time, women who defied the establishment’s dress codes or were seen not to following them strictly were disenfranchised, denied social rights and employment opportunities.
Although the chieftains of the Islamist uprising had promised there would be no such coercion, they drew back from that commitment, and it was incorporated in Iran’s Islamic Penal Code that the crime of violating hijab can carry a sentence of up to two months in prison.
Different Islamic Republic administrations have approached the enforcement of hijab laws differently. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, an advocate of civil liberties, abstained from intrusion into lifestyle issues, and during his tenure in the late 1990s, there was noticeably more tolerance for women’s personal choices.
Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is credited with upping the stakes over the dress code after he communicated a national directive to several government agencies in January 2006 markedly toughening the regulations. As part of the directive, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, police forces, Ministry of Culture, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Ministry of Education, Islamic Development Organization and a catalogue of other institutions were assigned different responsibilities for promoting and enforcing hijab.
Although Iran's hijab rules are stringently enforced and all Iranian women must abide by them, whether they are religious-minded or don’t wish to be veiled, hard-line clerics, government-affiliated ideologues and the state media continue to lecture the public about the need for these standards and complain about laxity in their observance in the public spaces, saying it does society ethical harm.
Elham Gheytanchi, an associate professor of sociology at Santa Monica College, argues that in Iran, “hijab has nothing to do with morality, religion or ethics” but is “what the political elite wants, and it is how they came to power.”
“Making hijab mandatory for all means that the regime governs your most private realm and is present everywhere. If it had to do with religion, it would have been a private matter between women and their God. But the Iranian government has declared itself as the force of God and their legitimacy depends on it,” she told Al-Monitor.
Every year, multiple national events, conferences, music and film productions, hundreds of hours of TV programming and online campaigns are devoted to proselytizing on an issue the Iranian government has made into a national security matter. In 2017, the noted human rights lawyer Nemat Ahmadi said a staggering sum of $193 million is spent on hijab-related promotional activities every year.
Iran's morality police are often accused of using excessive force against women deemed to be in violation. Self-appointed vigilantes and religious traditionalists who are not commissioned by the government but feel empowered by its discourse also approach women on the street to aggressively correct their dress code compliance.
The government’s hijab rhetoric has become decidedly more aggressive under Raisi, pitting groups of people against each other and fueling hostile debates on social media. Some Iranians say the Islamic Republic has invested so heavily in the issue that it has aligned its legitimacy with women keeping their headscarves on. Others argue because the administration is unable to address the country’s economic and foreign policy deficiencies, it has taken to distracting the people by amplifying a minor issue.
The patriarchal nature of Iranian society also plays a role in the pressure against women.
Zahra Tizro, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of East London, told Al-Monitor that many Iranian women have resisted these oppressive policies over the years since the revolution, but with little support. "We often hear how families themselves, especially the males, enforce a system of command and control on female members of their families, sometimes using more aggressive behaviors such as domestic violence, honor killings and so on, and there are no strong reactions against such inequalities,” she said, concluding, “It seems to me that religious traditionalism is deeply rooted and entrenched in cultural and social discourses and practices.”