In Iran, almost everybody knows Mohammad Reza Zaeri. The one time editor-in-chief of the popular Tehran daily newspaper Hamshahri, recently he is better known for his stance on one of Iran’s most divisive issues: the compulsory hejab.

On May 27, Zaeri travelled to Qom to take part in the seminary town’s first-ever public debate about mandatory Islamic headscarves in Iran.

“I am against forced hejab,” Zaeri told Alef website on May 9. “I think it was one of the mistakes we made after the revolution. We must admit this. We must accept that we have made a mistake.”

This and other recent public statements from the cleric sparked this week’s panel event.

In the same Alef interview, Zaeri insisted that sharia law provides no justification for obligatory hejab. In the early days of the revolution, he said, influential figures, including Morteza Motahari, one of the revolution's most celebrated thinkers, tried to persuade Ayatollah Khomeini not to issue an edict on hejab. But it was too late.

Unsurprisingly, the interview attracted widespread response, and the site was flooded with comments. Speaking to Alef on May 22, Hossein Suzanchi, assistant professor of Bagher al-Olum Islamic university, said,  “If you believe that an Islamic government must base its laws on the civil laws of Islam, then how can you justify blaming the regime for making this law mandatory? Which one is a mistake: The actions of the Islamic Republic or his analysis?”

Further controversy followed when Zaeri gave a five-minute television interview along the same lines.

But speaking in Qom, Zaeri said that the TV clip was taken out of context; his interview had only been partially broadcast. He said that he believed women should wear the Islamic headscarf. His main point was that women wearing hejab must be able to appear in public with their heads held high. He said that there was immense value in wearing a hejab, but added, “But we must ask whether this symbolic value can be maintained when we force women to wear hejab.”

“I strongly believe that the policy of forced hejab is totally wrong. If wearing a hejab was a free choice, then it would be easier to convince women of the value of wearing it.” He mentioned that people in Jakarta might take to hejab more readily than those in Qom or Tehran – and this was because hejab was not mandatory in Indonesia.

The Statistics Speak

Zaeri also cited a range of statistics to support his stance. “In a survey,” he said, “the question of bad hejab [wearing hejab inappropriately, according to hardliners or more conservative sections of Iranian society] ranks 13 in a list of 16 concerns over social issues.”

But Mohammad Aghasi, the head of the Iranian Students’ Polling Agency (ISPA) has published even more sensational statistics. Between 1974 and 2014, there were four surveys conducted about hejab in Iran. In 1974, 75 percent of men wanted their wives to wear hejab, whereas in 1995 chador was preferred by 36 percent and 51.8 percent preferred manteaux.

He pointed out that, from 2006 to 2014, there has been a 10 percent decrease in the number of people who believed that chadors and hejabs are one and the same item of clothing. In the past decade, he said, the popularity of short manteaux and pants has increased — at the expense of chadors.

Despite these statistics, Reza Gholami, Secretary of the Cultural Council of the Supreme Leader’s Office, has been one of Zaeri’s harshest critics following his recent comments. He dismissed his ideas as naive, surprising and without merit. He also presented a different set of statistics, citing a survey conducted by the Islamic Propaganda Organization. “Close to 90 percent of women declared their belief in hejab,” the study announced.

Other critical voices emerged, unsurprisingly, from the clergy. Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, Iran’s most hardline cleric, is among them. The key argument from many in the clergy is that hejab is best discussed in religious circles – not in the media. This statement did nothing to quell the media storm. Zaeri is much loved by the media, not least because he has played such a significant role in it — in addition to his previous role as editor of one of Iran’s most important newspapers, he also founded the magazine Jadid, which was run by young reformist journalists, as well as Khaymeh, a magazine focusing on religious issues, and a society for young journalists. And he can certainly be considered at least a minor expert in hejab, haven written two books on the subject. Zaeri also has considerable knowledge about the country’s political realm, as his father was both an MP and a provincial governor.

Despite current limitations in Iran’s media landscape, Zaeri appears determined to use it to his benefit. He may find he faces media bans for his recent comments, including from state-run television. But it is unlikely his opponents will be able to keep his views completely out of circulation.

Perhaps he sees his opportunity to have an impact on one of Iran’s most important and controversial issues. After all, he has the laments of Motahari ringing in his ears. Everyone has something to say about hejab in Iran today, and, in his view, it is a debate worth having before it is too late again. For him, the fact that Iran’s leaders failed to properly consider the views of one of the Islamic Revolution’s most influential thinkers has led to a huge range of social, religious and political problems.

But though he is a powerful figure, it would be wrong for Zaeri to think of himself as the next Motahari. After all, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei refers to hardline Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi as “the Motahari of our time.” And Motahari’s own son, rogue MP Ali Motahari, could well position himself against Zaeri.

The question of whether Iran’s political and religious elite are now rewriting the Motahari narrative to fit their own agenda, or Zaeri is actually as naïve as he has been described will no doubt be a topic for further debate. And, as it has for three decades, the controversial topic of whether women should be forced to wear hejab will continue to make headlines – and divide the country along cultural, political and religious lines.


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