The hijab and the nuanced position of Iranian women
By Hügo Krüger
On 16 September 2022 the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in a hospital in Tehran following her arrest by Iran’s Guidance Patrol. Although the details surrounding her death has been disputed, given that she suffered from previous brain injuries (later acknowledged by her family’s lawyer), the event sparked protests and spoke to an underlying anger within Iranian Society.
Iranian women started protesting with the Slogan, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” – “Women Live, Freedom” and they were joined by the Iranian diaspora in cities like San Francisco, Toronto, Brussels, Berlin, Paris and New York. Much like the Black Lives Matter protests that swept through the United States in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd – the nuanced details of Mahsa Amini’s death no longer mattered, as the movement spoke to systemic issues within the society.
To the protestors, the Hijab symbolizes the status of women in general as Iran still upholds laws and practices like the following that are outright discriminatory.
- Laws that forbid married women from leaving Iran without their husband’s consent.
- Legislation that makes it difficult for women to file for a divorce as they risk losing the custody of their children to the father once the children are older than seven.
- Laws and practices that prevent women from getting married without their father’s permissions.
- All girls over 7 years old are required to wear a headscarf when going to school, with the practice being mandatory in public from the age of 9
There are however signs of reform within Iranian society as since 2019 Iran abolished a law that prevented Iranian women who marry foreigners to pass citizenship onto their children. A 2018 survey published by Iran’s Parliamentary Research Center (PRC) showed that between 60 to 70% of Iranian women do not follow ” the Islamic dress code” strictly in public”. The report also noted that positive attitudes to the dress code has been steady falling since 1992 and proposed the repealing of Iran’s hijab as the measure was clearly counterproductive.
“The PRC also proposed repealing Iran’s hijab law as one of five approaches the state could adopt to counter waning support of the hijab, arguing that the state’s aim of getting people to embrace it could be achieved in more subtle ways.”
The debate in Iran opened up in recent times with calls for reform that included a former Iranian President, a former Mayor of Tehran, the Grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, a former brigadier general of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and a senior Islamic Cleric.
When it comes to women, Iran is a country of contradictions, the above mentioned laws stand in stark contrast against the remarkable achievement that over 70% of Iran’s mathematics and science graduates are women, a higher proportion than in most liberal western democracies. Iranian Mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani, was the first and only women to date to have won a Field’s Medal in Mathematics and in 2016 Dorsa Derakhshani became Iran’s first female Chess Grandmaster. She obtained the title after the Iranian Federation banned her for refusing to wear a Hijab, and her brother was punished for playing a match against an Israeli Opponent . When it comes to Sports, Iranian Female Athletes compete at an International Level and have won a series of Gold Medals at the Olympic Games. Iran’s fertility rate (usually the best proxy that economists use to measure the advancement of women) has fallen to levels below China’s thanks to rapid urbanization rate that occurred in the period following the collapse of the last Shah’s Rule.
So why the contradiction with the hijab and other outdated practices?
Under strict Islamic Rule, the purpose of Hijab is to encourage modesty, both physically and spiritually as stated in [Qur’an 24:31].
“And tell the believing women to reduce of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which appears thereof and to wrap their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, fathers, sons, husband’s sons, brothers, brother’s son, sister’s sons…”
Despite being mandated religiously, the practice of wearing face veils varies throughout the Muslim World. Media reports often don’t distinguish between the different types of veils like the Hijab, Niqab, Burka, Chador and Dupatta. The adherence to the particular type is often a function of cultural and conservative attitudes that in certain countries, like Iran predate the arrival of Islamic Rule.
Surveys report that the practice of wearing a face veil in one form or another ranges significantly in among Muslim Women Worldwide, from a 90% acceptance rate in Egypt, to less than half in Lebanon. Even in countries with sizable Muslim minorities and strong rights for women, many women actively chose to wear the veil out of their own free will with acceptance ranging from 65% in the United States, 64% in India and more than 50% among South Africa’s university educated Muslim Women. Today only two countries, Afghanistan and Iran mandate the wearing of head scarves in public as since 2018 it is no longer compulsory in Saudi Arabia – although it is still practiced by the majority of the population.
Adherence to the practice changed throughout the last century in Iranian society. From 1936, the Shah Reza Pahlavi implemented a series of “modernisation reforms” like the Kashf-e-Hijab, that gave the police the right to rip the hijab from a women’s face. His aim was to modernise Iran and remove the influence of the Muslim Clerics in the society, but the practice ultimately backfired and emboldened the revolutionary movement.
Despite attempts to celebrate it, the Pahlavi Dynasty was cruel. The Shah ruled Iran with an Iron fist and notably with the SAVAK – a Gestapo like security force that routinely tortured dissidents of the state. In the years prior to the 1979 revolution, Iranians found escape in the Madrassas and Mosques that offered a form of congregation and solitude from the brutality of the Monarchy. The role of the Mosques became a political instrument that was used to mobilise dissident voices against the regime. Women started wearing their head scarves as a symbol of rebellion against the Monarchy.
But in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution the Hijab moved again from the positive to a negative. After adopting the constitution known as the Velayat-e faqih, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini dictated that face covering become mandatory for women in public life to conceal their “nakedness”. His decision sparked the 1979 Women’s Day Protests, the first rebellion against the introduction of the veil. The protest had an initial moderate success, but it only delayed the Hijab’s systemic implementation. In 1980, unveiled women were refused entry into public life and by 1983, women could face corporate punishment for not wearing a headscarf. Then during the Iran Iraq War, the status of the Hijab briefly changed again as Iranian Women wore the headscarf as a symbol to get behind the war effort. It’s also worth recalling that it was ultimately thanks to Israeli Weapons and Military support that Iran could repel Saddam Hussein’s Army as at the time Israeli Intelligence regarded Iraq as a bigger threat to National Security.
Today under Iranian Law, women over the age of 9 are required to wear a veil in public and since 2005, they could be fined by Iran’s Guidance Patrol, known as the ‘Morality Police’ in the West, for not adhering to the country’s dress code. The right to enforce the dress code rule is also exerted by more than one institution that includes the infamous paramilitary Basij – an institution that is less accountable to the public. As soon as the hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad instituted the Guidance Patrol, tales of police brutality and abuse of power became evident. Powerless and humiliated citizens, who couldn’t take their anger out at the police decided in turn to chastise and attack religious women who wore the veil out of conviction.
“The behavior of the Guidance Patrols in some cases was so violent and harsh that it led to a popular backlash. But since they were connected with the police force, the ordinary people did not dare respond to them. Rather, they attack religious people who would verbally chastise them for the way they were dressed. On June 13, 2012, it was reported that a 30-year-old woman was abused in Punak, Tehran. After having chastised a woman who, according to her, was improperly wearing the veil, she was attacked by the improperly attired woman who pulled off her veil. The next day, a woman who was accompanied by her 3-year-old child was beaten by two other improperly veiled women in Khaniabad, Tehran. A few days later, a young man was beaten and wounded after chastising another man who, according to witnesses, was dressed very inappropriately.”
My experience in traveling through Iran with my wife has been that the hijab’s enforcement clearly differs from city to city and within family to family. In Iran’s religious capital Qom, it is rare to find a woman without a full chador, yet just South in Isfahan, particularly younger women preferred to wear only a headscarf. In the northern more liberal areas around Rasht and in Tehran, it’s not too uncommon to see women barely respecting the rule in public and often in restaurants or on the Caspian Sea’s beach, they simply don’t care about the Hijab.
As confirmed to me by a former journalist; Fereshteh Sadeghi; the protests in the aftermath of Masha Amini is not as widespread as reported in the western media, they came overwhelmingly from the upper classes and university students. Her observation ties in with a 2018 poll that found that many Iranians agree with the statement that “Women should wear the hijab even if they don’t believe in it”. The poll notes that the attitude and opinion is a function of geography, and therefore clearly even abolishing the law will not entirely remove the practice or eliminate the cultural pressures that exist within Iranian Society.
Nuance should be added here as educated Muslim women throughout the world wear a veil out of their own free will. The Iranian government as advised by its own parliament has no reason to fear that the practice will go away, even if the laws that mandate them are removed.
The modernisation of Iran should be encouraged if Iranians and others around the world wish to see constructive constitutional change within the Islamic Republic and its relations to other Middle Eastern countries and notably the hostile relationship with Israel. But I also caution against those who preach the language of revolution. The nature of the Iranian regime is that the security forces act as a shadow of power. They have shown their willingness to squash any attempt that challenges their rule. In the unlikely event that that the government is toppled, the IRCG will quickly exert control over Iran and potentially bring a more devasting order to power as was the case in Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The Iranian military is still one of the most respected institutions in the country and despite western media coverage, the majority of Iranians do actually support their government.
The upliftment of women in Iran, much like elsewhere in the world often has little to do with the morality and debate taking places within the intellectual silos, but is rather driven by the technology and urbanisation that breaks down traditional and religious authority. The advancement of women is comparable to the abolition of slavery that was only defeated after the widespread use of the steam engine and not due to the moral debates that took place since the time of Aristotle. Telling women what they should and should not wear simple cannot be justified in the modern era and as Iran’s own government admitted in 2018, the society has long past moved the point where the law is enforceable.
About the writer:
Hügo Krüger is a South African born Structural/Nuclear Engineer, writer and YouTube podcaster, commentating on topics relating to Energy and Geopolitical Matters, Hügo is married to an Iranian born Mathematician and Artist; the couple resides in Paris.