Iranian women fighting against the compulsory hijab are the latest victims of a government-led campaign to silence dissent, following a wave of arrests targeting civic protests that have spread in the country against the backdrop of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions. Tehran says it will not tolerate disobedience, but heavy clampdowns deepen state-society rifts and act as fuel for opposition forces inside and outside the country to escalate their activities against the Iranian political system.
The compulsory hijab was imposed on women after the Iranian revolution in 1979, with the architects of the revolutionary ideology wanting to restrict the choices of clothing, banning tight or bright colors, makeup, and even the exposure of hair. But after decades of forcing the wearing of the hijab, Iranian clerics who support this rule now face an impossible battle of trying to convince defiant Iranian women of the merits of observing the hijab.
While a part of the Iranian population voluntarily observes the hijab, many women choose not to, flaunting their hair and colorful and provocative clothing as a form of civil disobedience against the system’s intolerance and extremism.
Iran’s clerics labeled the latest anti-hijab backlash as a form of moral corruption. The Iranian government quickly backed initiatives to address the improper wearing of the hijab. The notorious Guidance Patrols issued warnings to women not properly observing the hijab or arrested them. Iranian fashion police units offer information on alternative hijab options that look more upbeat, but still demand strict observance of the hijab. Tehran also held an annual celebration marking the National Day of Hijab and Chastity on July 12. The day involved public rallies by pro-government loyalists in large stadiums to encourage the observance of the hijab.
Iran briefly adopted a loose hijab policy in recent years. But “hardline” President Ebrahim Raisi sees women not wearing the hijab as a national security threat in light of his attempts to revive an old decree to ban Western fashion manifestations in the public sphere, and to encourage families to marry off women quicker. He said that the “world arrogance” – referring to the United States – is organizing corruption campaigns inside Iran.
But even women who voluntarily observe the hijab in Iran are backing the non-observance campaign. Using #no2Hijab on social media, and posting videos and photographs of women not wearing the hijab in public spaces, the anti-hijab movement is picking up in Iran, albeit encouraged by the United States-based exiled Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad under her 2014 “My Stealthy Freedom” movement and White Wednesdays, calling on Iranian women to either oppose mandatory dress codes or replace the traditional black hijab with white scarves.
With a following in Iran, and the backing of the United States, Alinejad is viewed by Tehran as a “regime change” advocate. She thinks the clerical government in Iran will soon collapse. Recently, she was also allegedly targeted in the United States in a failed kidnapping attempt and an assassination plot, which Tehran rejected involvement in. But other activists in Iran and abroad who do not necessarily subscribe to “regime change” policies are also urging Iranian women to publicly remove their hijabs. The calls are working, and since 2019, more Iranian women are taking selfies without headscarves and posting them on social media, some wearing white headscarves or waving the white flags of peace.
In response, Tehran is imposing new restrictions, calling on the country’s intelligence services to prevent anti-hijab activism. Dozens of Iranian women have been arrested in recent weeks, some forced into confessions of immoral action that were aired on national television channels. In the central city of Shiraz, 10 women skaters who removed their hijabs were arrested in June. Iranian banks are banning female workers from wearing thin stockings, high-heeled shoes or makeup, and demanding top to toe covering of the body. In the conservative city of Mashhad, women are banned from public spaces unless properly covered.
But the strict measures reportedly go against even the wishes of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is urging for a more rational response that works. “Conservative” papers too argue that enforcing a strict hijab rule will fail to fix the problem of women not observing the hijab in Iran. According to a parliamentary research report in Iran, fewer people support the compulsory wearing of the hijab in Iran.
Still, Ayatollah Khamenei insists that anti-hijab activism is a Western ploy against Iran. Previously, he called opposition to the hijab a lowly act. Iran’s Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohsen Eje’i has said that foreign intelligence services are behind the latest cases of women removing their hijabs in Iran. The “conservative” Fars News Agency mentioned that enemy plots are aiming to fuel internal conflict in Iran through a project that pits the Iranian people against each other, and encourages Iranian women to deliberately provoke arguments with security forces to cause societal frictions.
Clearly, the latest hijab debates in Iran, along with the anti-hijab movement, are divisive issues. To halt such divides, civic activists, including prominent women who observe the hijab, are signing statements urging the Iranian government to dismiss plans to enforce the wearing of the hijab, calling the enforcement a useless and costly endeavor. More importantly, many Iranian observers think that women will be the real drivers of change in the country and may even start a new revolution against the clerics to lift the veil of injustice that has led to a blatant disregard for human rights and freedom.