Hijab-wearing woman. Photo: Flickr Commons
Hijab-wearing woman. Photo: Flickr Commons

Ironically, the hijab was once a symbol of defiance that helped unite people from all strata of society against the liberal and Westernized monarchy in Iran. Sadly, what began as a political statement signifying a rejection of the “un-Islamic” nature of society at the time became the primary tool for imposing a stricter interpretation of Islam.

When they adopted the hijab by choice, most Iranian women did not realize where it would lead. Moreover, during the revolution, it was never declared a compulsory prerequisite for participation, nor was the imposition of a dress code publicized as a demand. Bringing down the Pahlavi regime of the Shah of Iran was the single goal of the movement, but once it was achieved, the hijab was, in March 1979, declared mandatory. Shocked by this attack on their personal freedom, women took to the streets again, this time to protest against the rigid laws.

Unsuccessful in resisting the new conservative system, Iranian women became victims of their own political action. Lacking support from men, who were intent giving the new hardline system a chance, Iranian women were left with no option but to adopt the stark black robe and veil, and endure a life devoid of glamor and fashion.

Over the decades, the hijab became the strongest visual symbol of Iran’s conservative Islamic regime. Contravening the law was a punishable offense, and a “morality police” force was formed to make sure everybody complied. By excluding women from public places like sports stadiums, imposing strict etiquette rules and enforcing the hijab code, the state greatly increased its control over the private lives of its citizens.

The hijab in Iran has never been about religion but politics and power; it represents state control over the people

The strict dress code imposed by the government lacked the powerful religious symbolism it could have had if dressing that way had been left to individual choice. Considering this aspect, the hijab in Iran has never been about religion but politics and power; it represents state control over the people.

Over the years, there have been instances of women rebelling against the “system.” Removing the hijab is seen as a rejection of the government, more treasonous in essence than heretical. Living in Iran is harder for women than it is in most Muslim countries, including neighboring Turkey and Pakistan, where personal attire is a matter of individual choice.

In December 2017, the focus of protests over the rising prices of food essentials soon turned to the veil issue and women began removing it from Tehran to Mashhad, making it clear that many Iranian women want a more moderate way of life. There is now more widespread support from men, many of whom have been inspired by the courage of women risking arrest over their opposition to the mandatory hijab. Men have also spent 40 years enduring a dress code that prohibits casual clothing.

Crossing personal boundaries is bound to produce discontent, as female parliamentarian Soheila Jaloodarzadeh observed: “When we restrict women and put them under unnecessary pressure, exactly this is the reason for rebellions, this is the reason the daughters of Revolution Street are putting their headscarves on a stick.”

Alarmed by the growing protests, President Hassan Rouhani tried to address the issue, saying, “We cannot pick a lifestyle and tell two generations after us to live like that, it is impossible… the views of the young generation about life and the world is different than ours.” Soon after, Tehran police adopted a softer approach,  letting women commit the offense several times without being arrested, and forcing them to attend “morality classes” to help them mend their ways. Signifying the split in Iranian society today, female disobedience campaigns have the potential to steal the limelight from other issues such as unemployment, inflation and corruption. This issue is the real ideological and existential challenge facing the regime in Iran.

The hijab issue occupies center stage in the power dynamics between Iranian society and the regime. Monitoring the level to which the hijab rule is relaxed or enforced indicates the space and freedom given by the government to its citizens as a whole. Non-adherence to the hijab rule expresses an absolute rejection of the current government’s right-wing ideology.

Acknowledging the unpopularity of the veil, Rouhani released a report that assesses the opposition to the hijab laws by at least 49% of the population. The three-year-old report was only made public in the aftermath of the December protests. Widely seen as an attempt to placate the masses, his efforts could even land him in the bad books of the orthodox government and religious leaders. Having said that, it is unlikely that this would result in reforms or a new policy; instead, it would generate a debate without any solution on the horizon.

Sabena Siddiqui

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst. Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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