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A year since Iran unrest, hijab takes backseat to economic woes

People walk outside Tehran's Grand Bazaar, nearly a year after Mahsa Amini's death that triggered nationwide protests
— Tehran (AFP)

A year after the death of Mahsa Amini sparked unrest across Iran, the issue of the hijab remains a sore spot -- but a crippling economic crisis has left many preoccupied with making ends meet.

"I believe economic issues are much more important than the topic of hijab," 41-year-old housewife Zahra told AFP.

Nationwide protests under the popular slogan "woman, life, freedom" erupted after the death in custody of 22-year-old Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022.

Amini had been arrested days earlier for allegedly breaching the Islamic republic's strict dress code, requiring women to dress modestly and cover their head and neck.

"I, myself, have no problem with hijab but would be happier if the economic conditions get better," said Zahra.

Like others interviewed by AFP, she declined to give her surname for fear of facing repercussions.

Women in Iran, especially in Tehran, have increasingly been flouting the mandatory headscarf despite government efforts to tighten controls over the dress code.

Inflation in Iran is hovering at 50 percent and the prices of commodities are skyrocketing

But across the country, where inflation is hovering at 50 percent and the prices of commodities are skyrocketing, many believe the economy takes precedence.

The hijab "is a completely secondary and personal issue," said Raha, a 34-year-old accountant.

"Our authorities should first provide good economic conditions," she said.

- Piling economic pressure -

According to analysts, economic grievances have fuelled public discontent since last year's protests, which persisted for months.

Last year's demonstrations -- which saw hundreds of people killed, including security personnel, with thousands more arrested -- posed a major challenge to the government of President Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi, who took office in August 2021, has since pledged to turn around the country's battered economy and "empower the poor".

He reiterated his vows this year to "control inflation" and "improve livelihoods", blaming Iran's economic woes on the "enemy".

Iran is reeling under US sanctions, with the local currency losing 66 percent of its value since last year

Iran has been reeling under crippling US sanctions since Washington's unilateral withdrawal in 2018 from a landmark nuclear deal.

Since last year, the local currency has traded at around 500,000 rial to the dollar, having lost some 66 percent of its value.

Mahtab, a 41-year-old lawyer, blamed the grinding hardship on "wrong economic policies".

"I can feel three to four times the economic pressure compared to last year," she said.

- 'Prices go up daily' -

In Tehran's bustling Grand Bazaar, shoppers, including women -- some with head covers and others without -- throng stores but many leave without buying anything.

Shop owners have complained of a dwindling customer base amid weakening purchasing power.

"The economic situation is worse than last year, and it will get even worse than this," said Mohsen, a salesman at a menswear store.

Bubbles blown by a merchant surround people walking outside the Grand Bazaar in Tehran

"Prices go up on a daily basis," the 37-year-old added.

Mehdi, a 40-year-old homeware store owner, said "many people can't afford the goods they need", adding that "the market is now experiencing inflationary stagnation".

Imported products have now become a luxury that few can afford.

"Today, most of the items available at the bazaar, such as pots, spoons and forks, are domestically made," said Mohammad, 41, who also works at a homeware shop.

But the headscarf remains a widely debated topic in Iran, where parliament has been discussing a bill imposing strict penalties on women flouting the hijab law.

"This bill is agreeable to some people but not for the general public," said 43-year-old housewife Fatemeh.

The accountant Raha meanwhile believes the country's economic troubles should remain the priority.

It's "getting worse by day, people are living hard lives," she said. "First, they need to address the economic problem, then they can gradually work on social problems."