Hijab Policy in Iran: Sign of Change to Come?

By Elinor Aspegren (PZ ’20)

The police chief of Tehran, the Iranian capital, announced Dec. 29 that Tehran police would no longer detain and punish women seen without a proper hijab in public—an offense commonly called a “bad hijab.” Instead, the women will be forced to attend Islam educational classes. The decision to lift this ban, at least in the capital, may appear inconsequential, yet is still a major sign of progress for the socially conservative country.

The connectedness between the Shia — a sect of Islam divided from Sunni — religion and the Iranian state contributes to the country’s conservativeness. Iran currently has executive, judicial, and legislative branches; but sitting atop the republic is the Supreme Leader, as the government places a higher rank on the clergy. He runs Iran’s military, judicial courts, and media. Kayhan Daily, the popular conservative newspaper thought to be close to the religious leader described the notion of “gender equality” as “unacceptable to the Islamic Republic.”

Despite the conservatism, women’s rights has been a topic of discussion in the former monarchy for over a century. In tracing the roots of activism and women’s rights, it is possible to understand the society at large. The Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, which many women participated in, inspired subsequent constitutional changes that opened the floodgates for modernism. Women gained the right to education and equal protection under the law, but still endured systematic oppression.

The Pahlavi era, the era of the Persian monarchy that lasted from 1925 to 1971, encouraged westernization and the advancement of women’s rights. For example, the Shah established Kashf-e hijab, banning all Islamic veils. Moreover, the state encouraged the 1930 Congress for Eastern Women, which passed a resolution supporting women’s suffrage and equal opportunity in education and employment

In 1963, the subsequent Shah lifted the ban on women’s suffrage as a part of a reform package called The White Revolution. In 1967, Iran adopted the Family Protection Act, which allowed women to ask for a divorce, outlawed polygamy except in special cases, and increased the legal marriage age to 15 for women.

The Revolution of 1979 led to the reimposition of Shar’ia Law, or Islamic religious law that concerns the faith of the individual and how to practice Islam. Part of this re-establishment led to the re-veiling of women, the repeal of the Family Protection Act, and the redefinition of women as being family caretakers.

Even with the strict gender separation rules imposed after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian women historically have enjoyed more liberties than in other Islamic countries. Iranian women are allowed to play sports, but cannot enter sports stadiums. They are allowed to drive, but have been sent to jail for speaking out for equal rights for women publicly. Many women, therefore, are unsatisfied with these changes and have actively protested, leading to where we are now.

A few weeks before the May 2017 election, more than 180 women’s rights activists signed a declaration stating their demands, including an end to all gender discrimination, to the next president and thousands of local council members. While the results have not manifested yet, the fact that President Hassan Rouhani has showed sensitivity toward these issues indicates progress.

Some gender rights activists attribute this change to rival Islamic country Saudi Arabia’s own relaxation of its own gender restrictions. Saudi Arabia and Iran have clashed over oil production, religious pilgrimages, their divergent branches of Islam and the wars in Syria and Yemen. More recently, Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive and to attend sporting events in stadiums. Iran, some surmise, has a desire to regain a semblance of moral superiority, hence the change in dress.

Perhaps this progress indicates the resistance of the new generation of youth to the government’s societal restraints compared to prior generations. Others believe that relaxed dress code enforcement may be rooted in the impracticality of prosecuting, fining and imprisoning violators.

Whatever the reasoning may be, the changing of hijabi laws signals a change in the outlook of Iranian officials. The decision marks what seems like another step towards progress under Iran’s relatively moderate President Rouhani. Yet, many demand more progress.

Yet, institution officials believe feminist ideas are a violation of Islamic principles. Additionally, since modernity has been associated with Western intrusion, colonialism, or imperialism, a number of Iranians hesitate embracing  “modernity,” fearing the potential implications that may follow.  

While the decrease in punishment for the unveiling of hijabi women does not seem to be incredibly significant, this is indicative of a larger social movement and a modernization of the Iranian political system. However, Iranian women’s rights activists must convince those in power to shy away from conservatism in order to make more bounds.

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