Iran: Majority of Iranians now opposed to compulsory veiling

Tehran Bureau

As the Islamic Republic of Iran's domestic and international problems multiply -- courtesy of the democratic movement and its own myopic policies -- its myriad factions are shifting blame for the system's cascading ills. One of the pressing concerns, maintenance of the mandatory veil, is not finding many willing enforcers. The problem is compounded by the fact that, in sharp contrast to the early years after the Revolution, the majority of Iranians are now opposed to compulsory veiling of any kind.

Part One

The Revolution and the Veil

According to Iran's fundamentalists, the purpose of the mandatory veil is to protect women's honor and the moral health of the citizenry. In fact, it has served a variety of purposes, only one of which is the observance of a religious obligation. Covering up political shortcomings, relieving men's sexual anxieties, rewarding its supporters, and providing a tool for control and repression are some of the primary benefits for those who have imposed or supported it.

On June 13, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a series of jaw-dropping comments on live television that shocked his admirers and detractors alike. "Some [men] get all worked up the moment there is the issue of women," he said. "Whenever there are moral problems, they [the men] are to blame." He added, "We really consider it an effrontery that a couple are stopped on the street and asked about their relation to one another. No one has the right to ask them this kind of question. It is wrong in my opinion and the government will respond wherever it can."

In the last few months, millions of women across Iran have used the post-election loosening of social strictures to push back their headscarves, wear tighter-fitting clothes, and ignore the oppressive codes of conduct to a degree not seen since the first year after the Revolution.

While the Iranian public is amply accustomed to the president's boldfaced lies and prevarications, there are reasons to take him at his word on this occasion. At a time when the Green Movement's activists are rethinking the efficacy of street protests, a new heavy-handed campaign against so-called "immodestly dressed" women holds the potential to reignite street clashes and further radicalize the movement. Beyond that, it would add to the distaste in which many Iranians already hold their president. Ahmadinejad's surprising intervention is thus entirely understandable from a strictly political point of view.

Still, as experts universally agree, the Iranian regime has little choice but to take action against "poorly veiled" women sooner or later, or risk losing face with its hardcore support base.

Hejab, or the veil, is no minor political issue in Iran. Over the past three decades, the country's leaders have foolishly made it out to be the cornerstone of their ideology and its imposition a touchstone of religious authenticity. The regime "has peddled the propaganda line that its very existence is tied to this issue," said a University of Tehran academic and author to Tehran Bureau. "Failing to enforce mandatory hejab now would erode its own legitimacy and doctrinal basis. Therefore, the question is not if it will move against women but when, by which method, and through which state organs."


On March 8, 1979, several thousand secular women marched through downtown Tehran in protest against compulsory veiling. They were wildly jeered by a few hundred religious fanatics who hurled all manner of insults at them, comparing them with "Western dolls" and "mindless mannequins."

Within weeks of the protest march, the secular women of Iran conclusively lost the battle for their country's version of freedom of choice. Not only did hejab become compulsory in public, a strict code of conduct was also imposed on women of all classes and ages. Soon women were excluded from certain public activities and even certain public spaces. Thus began a process of severe marginalization of women, a process that lasted well into the 1990s.

"What those well-meaning women didn't realize," said the academic, "was that they were not just up against a few thousand vigilantes and nutty zealots. Rather, veiling had the active or tacit support of the majority of the Iranian population."

Of course, the resulting utopia turned out to be quite different from what most people had envisioned, but there is no question of the enormous faith most Iranians had placed in the ruling ideology. There were several reasons for this. Many, including some secular Iranians, were genuinely taken in by the Revolution's universalistic and emancipatory impulses. They thus either turned a blind eye to or actively aided the regressive side of the new Islamic movement.

Some others were so incensed by the undemocratic nature of the old regime that they automatically identified with its supposed antithesis. And aside from all those millions of believers who sought salvation in the new movement, there was another group, particularly in the traditional middle classes, who believed they had found the road to true authenticity. It may be fair to refer to aspects of this infatuation as "Muslim chic."

The resulting aggregation of people with various interests and hopes was at best indifferent and at worst at odds with the aspirations of a secular democratic movement, then in its infancy.

But this is not the whole story. "In fairness," said the academic, "the veil did bring some dividends to certain social categories." Many traditional women, numbering in the millions, who had been prohibited till then by their husbands or fathers to work outside the home or pursue university studies, suddenly gained access to these proscribed places thanks to the new "moral" codes.

"Some of these women would not engage in such activities of their own volition, because they feared unwanted sexual attention or simply abhorred the so-called male gaze [namahram]," said the academic. "The gender segregation and its attendant behavioral codes allowed these women the kind of freedom of movement that they could only dream about before the revolution."

As far as working class women were concerned, hejab was never a central preoccupation of theirs. Even if they were not conservative and tradition-bound, wearing it reduced sexual harassment and was therefore essential in tough work environments. The imposition of mandatory veiling, thus, had a complex range of effects.

Modernity's Revenge

The social context in which the veil was widely accepted, particularly in the first decade after the Revolution, has undergone deep and lasting changes. Among the factors most often cited by sociologists for this cultural shift are mass urbanization, the spread of higher education, the exigencies of state-building, increasing overseas travel, the demise of traditional professions, globalization, and the communication revolution.

The Azad University system of higher learning with more than 400 campuses stretching to the remotest corners of the country made it possible for millions of children of traditional families to get a taste of modern forms of education -- on top of the scores of tuition-free state universities accessible to working-class youth. In turn, the ubiquitous appearance of urbane and secular young women in the provincial campuses forever changed gender relations in the traditional bastions of conservatism. (As matters of gender form "the beating heart" of conservatism in Muslim societies, it also transformed conservatism itself, but that is a separate issue.)

For its part, rapid industrial and capitalist development struck a serious blow to the economic mainstays of traditionalism, small commodity production and distribution. The Tehran bazaar, for example, has undergone important changes since the early 1970s. So has the countryside.

As for the communication revolution, according to a recently published survey by the Iranian government, 46 percent of the residents of Tehran have satellite TV in their homes. Of these, almost half watch Farsi1 on a daily basis. In some provinces, such as Kurdistan, the viewership is even higher. Farsi 1, a new Persian-language channel owned by Rupert Murdoch, runs mostly foreign soap operas and situation comedies, which at times include quite racy themes, dubbed into Persian.

The cumulative impact of these changes on the status of hejab can not be underestimated.

The Old Politics of Hejab

The new ruling class quickly set out to capitalize on its gains after the Revolution by turning fundamentalist precepts into the only permissible norms. To ensure compliance, disciplinary measures were codified in terms of state law and cast as a divinely mandated legal code. Among these were the dress code and an unstated behavior code that undergirded it.

"The important point," said the academic, "is that there was much more to this than a simple application of Sharia [Islamic law]." First, the new ruling elite sculpted Sharia to suit its imperatives of statecraft. Second, in the name of safeguarding a divinely sanctioned paradise on earth, it freely used Sharia -- sometimes to the detriment of Sharia itself -- for its immediate political goals. Enforcement of mandatory hejab occupied pride of place in this scheme.

The following pronouncement from a top leader of the radical fundamentalists eloquently captures the instrumentality of hejab in the Islamic Republic: "It is necessary for brother Basijis [militia] and NAJA [state police] personnel in the next two to three months -- i.e., before the start of the next Majles [parliament] -- to considerably ramp up their cultural, moral, and social pressures with their Islamic punishments so that the middle classes feel outraged and disillusioned with the Reformists." These words were uttered by Hossein Panahi in a panel discussion with several other leaders of veterans and vigilante groups on the eve of the Reformist-dominated 6th Majles.

According to French theorist Michel Foucault, all modern governments exert social control through the manipulation of their citizen's will and desires, though this is done mostly inconspicuously, even invisibly. The Iranian regime, which combines elements of modern and premodern forms of statecraft, engages in both overt and covert mechanisms of social control that have not been seen before, wherein the centrality of mandatory veiling.

At times, this has taken on truly Kafkaesque dimensions. According to a retired NAJA officer, by 1997, the year Mohammad Khatami captured the presidency, there were in Tehran alone hundreds of thousands of individual files at the headquarters of Amaken, NAJA intelligence, on women who had been detained and interrogated for "acting immodestly" or "dressing improperly". (This does not even count the millions of young people who had been stopped and let go without an arrest.) Some of the files involved questions of the most intimate nature imaginable. It is more than likely that many of these women did not speak of their experiences to their husbands or families. In a still-conservative society like Iran where the stigma of "impropriety" or "errancy" can lead to dire consequences for women, the state could exert vast powers of control and surveillance over ordinary Iranians through the mere threat of detention by the morality police. It could wield this power at will by loosening or tightening it wherever it suited its interest.

There was more to hejab politics than the large-scale concerns of the state. At the lower rungs of society, the various codes of "modesty" centered on the veil served a more subtle though no less invidious purpose: Any avowedly fundamentalist individual could stop a citizen, deliver an admonishment, and demand the rectification of their behavior. This sort of ad hoc morality code enforcement was rationalized under the Qu'ranic phrase "Enjoinment of Good and Prohibition of Evil". If an altercation ensued, law enforcement officers were routinely instructed to come down on the side of the fundamentalist. This in effect was a hidden part of the patronage system the Islamic Republic has perfected throughout the years. For millions of the regime loyalists who had benefited meagerly in material terms from the system, there was always the added bonus of "feeling" superior to others; no matter how intellectually inferior or unattractive you were, you could always lord it over someone else to feel a sense of empowerment.

The same incentive has operated, albeit at a much higher level, for the radical cadres and regime activists who have considered the use of violence -- physical, psychological, or discursive -- against "inferior" social groups such as secular women a deeply transcendent experience. They have this in common with the adherents of fascist ideologies.

No wonder therefore that hejab has been called "the beating heart of the religion" and no wonder that compulsory veiling has been turned into the sine qua non of the regime's viability.

Please click here for Part 2.

Photos: A billboard in downtown Tehran paid for by an Iranian bank shows the nexus of religion and big finance; it reads: "Being immodestly-veiled is a disagreeable practice and being properly-veiled is an established tradition among Iranians." Archive photo at the top: before hejab was enforced after the revolution.


03 JUL 2010 21:53

Hamid Farokhnia, a staff writer at Iran Labor Report, covers the capital for Tehran Bureau. He writes under a pen name.