Iranian women wait to cast their ballots for the 11th Parliamentary elections at a polling station in Shah Abdol-Azim Shrine in Tehran on February 21, 2020. Photo: AFP / Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency

When a radical vigilante rammed his vehicle into two women in the Iranian city of Urmia on August 8 after criticizing their flouting of hijab rules, local authorities promised decisive action for the assault after the assailant’s arrest.

But like those before him who have assaulted and attacked Iranian women over their state of dress, he’s widely expected to walk free.

The attack, which went viral on social media, has reignited debate on compulsory hijab laws, with many questioning the sustainability and practicality of the strict Islamic dress code in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran’s hardline approach to the hijab is distinct from almost every other major Muslim country. Every year, the government spends millions of dollars to promote hijab-wearing through conferences, exhibitions, TV and radio programs, books, pamphlets and billboards nationwide.

At least 32 government and public agencies are known to finance hijab-related propaganda. Some suspect that funding will rise with the election of new President Ebrahim Raisi, who in his previous capacity as chief justice issued several directives tightening hijab codes.

In particular, he directed his deputies to report on government organizations that showed “shortcomings” in upholding hijab codes. Many Iranian women fear stiffened prohibitions under Raisi, including the deployment of more “guidance patrol” vans on the streets.

 A “moral security” division of the Iranian police often sends vans staffed with male and female officers for so-called “guidance patrol.” They’re tasked with spotting women and girls deemed to be dressed inappropriately in public and arresting them, sometimes violently.

The “offending” women are usually released after signing affidavits that they will not repeat the “offense” of appearing in public with “poor hijab.”

Footage often trickles out over social media recorded by amateur photographers or citizen journalists showing morality police beating or verbally abusing women they believe are not properly covered.

Women in Iran will often use total-body clothing in colors other than black. Photo: AFP / Shota Mizuno / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Increasingly, the attacks are triggering public rage and indignation online. The issue is increasingly polarizing Iranian society on ideological lines, a conflict that is expected to deepen under Raisi’s fundamentalist rule.  

Many Iranians argue that, like many other Islamic motifs, the hijab is a religious recommendation open to interpretation and there is no reference in the scripture or prophetic tradition that it should be implemented coercively.

But that argument doesn’t stop vigilantes, sometimes authorized by the government, who often approach women on the streets to admonish their state of dress and harass them in caustic encounters that rights groups say often leave the targeted women mentally scarred.

Others are left physically impaired. In October 2014, two unidentified assailants sprayed acid into the faces of four women in the city of Isfahan because they were supposedly not donning proper hijab. The women were blinded.

The attack came after hardline Friday prayer leader Yousef Tabatabai Nejad castigated women in the city for not observing hijab codes, saying that a red line had been crossed and that they should be confronted violently.

In 2019, Iranian law enforcement started sending cautionary mobile text messages to female drivers and passengers in private cars who are violating the hijab mandate, including by wearing it loosely.

They are summoned to police stations, asked to sign affidavits of repentance, and, in the case of multiple infractions, their vehicles are seized.

In one report from 2015, police seized more than 40,000 cars in ten months from women without appropriate head covering. Some women were fined and had their cars impounded for a week.  

Iranian women wait to vote in parliamentary elections in Tehran. Photo: AFP / Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency

Every year, police and government institutions devise new plans to toughen hijab fiats. Religious authorities, including Friday prayer leaders and seminarians, perennially complain about the proliferation of “debauchery” and corruption in society as a result of women not observing the commands.

The government’s preferred dress style for women, particularly those working in government offices, is the chador, a black  veil that envelopes the body from head to foot, exposing only the face.

For less conservative women, a manteau – a long overcoat that can come in different colors but does not offer much diversity in terms of shape and appearance – is often worn.

Critics note that Iran’s Arab allies, including Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, all of which have significant Shiite populations, do not curb the freedoms of their women as severely. 

They note other Muslim-majority countries, including the conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, have made Islamic dress largely optional.

To be sure, the hijab is an Islamic tradition and many Muslim women, particularly among migrant communities in Europe and North America, freely choose to wear the veil.

Different administrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution have adopted different stances on the issue.

For example, the administrations of President Mohammad Khatami and President Hassan Rouhani granted marginally more freedoms to women and abstained from prying into their personal lives, while the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked the crescendo of the asphyxiation of female civil liberties.

Some observers say the government’s stance on the hijab is an authoritarian tool to assert dominance over its people. This means defiance of the hijab codes is viewed officially as political defiance.

A woman holds a picture of Iran’s newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi as supporters celebrate his victory in Imam Hussein square in the capital Tehran on June 19, 2021. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

“While for Iranian women, the refusal to wear the veil might be a personal or political struggle, for the regime it is inherently political. It taps into its anxiety about women and the female body,” said Elham Naeej, a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University.

“Women who unveil become pawns of the foreign enemy because the Islamic regime’s discourse around women is divided into polarities such as veiled and unveiled, Islamic and Westernized, modest and corrupted, safe and threat, us and them,” she added.

“However, ironically, those Western-looking women are appropriated by the regime during critical political times to show their own legitimacy. For example, the state TV shows loosely veiled women who are voting for the Islamic regime during presidential elections,” she told Asia Times.

Mansoor Moaddel, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, said, “Under the Islamic regime, the die-hard Shia fundamentalists are forcefully resisting the idea that it is up to a woman to dress as she wishes.

“For the regime, the veil and more broadly the subjugation of women is the key component of its identity and the emblem of its religious fundamentalism.”

Some believe the government’s refusal to yield to hijab policy reforms is rooted in fear the public would demand greater social freedoms, which the Islamic Republic is reluctant to grant.

“Sometimes something as benign to some as mandatory hijab is viewed as a tool by which one can gauge the level of control the government has on the people,” said Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh, an associate professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University.