The obligatory hijab is a politicisation of the female body that is central to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s self-image. It remains strictly enforced despite waning popular support and the emergence of internationally-reported movements challenging the policy. Kaveh Ghobadi argues that, despite the regime’s rhetoric of honouring and protecting women, the hijab policy is a manifestation of a devastating patriarchal culture. Were it to be abolished, wider political and societal change could follow.
The hijab has attracted a lot of attention in the Islamic public sphere. Since the creation of modern nation states in the Middle East and North Africa during the early decades of the 20th century, women have served as a marker for the political ideology of their countries. For example, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey and the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, among others, pursued modernization (Westernization) of their countries through forcing or encouraging women to remove their veils. In other words, the politics of modernization and the politics of dress became one and the same in these countries. In Iran, after the 1979 revolution, wearing the veil for women became obligatory under law to represent the values promulgated by the new Islamic regime. In effect, the female body was turned into a site where pre- and post-revolution governments in Iran enacted their modernization and Islamicization policies respectively. These all indicate the far-reaching significance of the hijab.
In this piece, I do not intend to make any comment on whether women should wear the veil or not, this is something for women themselves to decide. I am merely interested in women’s resistance to the politics of coercive dress code and its implication for democracy in Iran.
The coercive dress code of governments before and after the revolution have been met by resistance on the part of Iranian women. However, over the past few years the emergence of movements such as “My Stealthy Freedom” and “the Girls of Revolution Street” have taken women’s opposition to the compulsory hijab to new heights. The former is an online campaign founded by Masih Alijnejad where women post their photos and videos without scarves, and the latter refers to women who make flags out of their headscarves in public spaces in opposition to the compulsory dress code. Some, inside and outside Iran, might argue that a woman’s right to bodily autonomy is not of paramount significance at a time when the country is bedevilled by economic hardship and suffocating political totalitarianism. The fact that the Iranian regime has deployed thousands of agents known as Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrol) to implement its strict Islamic dress code shows that the hijab is one of the main pillars of the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, the country’s compulsory hijab laws cannot be separated from the suppression of ethnic/national and religious minorities of Iran, its environmental disaster and deteriorating economy. In other words, when women are facing long jail sentences for removing their headscarves in public it does not come as a surprise that workers are sentenced to prison and flogging merely for demanding their delayed wages, and that environmental, religious, and political activists are persecuted for their peaceful activities.
The regime’s enforcement of the hijab has received some support from wider Iranian society. However, support for the compulsory hijab has been waning since the revolution. The hijab has not granted women protection in public spaces, as the government claims. Providing women with a safe environment requires changes in a society’s attitude towards women, their sexuality and agency, rather than covering them up in borgha or chador.
Growing up and living in Iran as a male until the age of 28, I witnessed how Iran’s interpretation of Islam and its implementation in the legal system intersected with patriarchal values to subdue women. The mandatory hijab was the first step taken by the Iranian authorities to dispossess women of their bodies, shortly followed by other forms of discrimination.
The government has also massively invested in promoting an ‘Islamic culture’ through media and education. Embedded in this ‘Islamic culture’ is a patriarchal binary system in which women are allocated the inferior place. As such, coercive and discursive measures are adopted by the government to establish its Islamic gender regime. The establishment of political Islam in Iran has empowered the more conservative and religious stratum of society which in turn has had devastating impact on women’s lives. Political Islam and Islamic culture both glorify the hijab as a symbol of modesty and chastity, portraying an idealized image of women as shy, subservient, and self-effacing.
Women’s opposition to coercive hijab, thus, has far wider repercussions than merely securing their control over their bodies: it has shaken the regime and a patriarchal culture which are interdependent. If women in their millions take off their scarves and pour into the streets, the Islamic Republic will fall apart. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the Islamic Republic is fighting tooth and nail against unveiling and misveiling women who are targeting its most visible symbol, i.e., the hijab. The regime is cognizant that giving up on the mandatory hijab would be the beginning of an end to its four-decade of authoritarian rule.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.