Recently a driver in Urmia, the capital of West Azerbaijan, took exception to the way two passing women were dressed in public. He ran them over with his car and drove away from the scene. A few hours later police reported that the man had been found and arrested.
The incident prompted uproar both inside Iran and on social media, where issues of women's rights and compulsory hijab in the country once again came to the fore.
A study published in the Iranian quarterly Journal of Family and Research found that schoolgirls in Iran are increasingly distancing themselves from “Islamic hijab” – and many more than before are actively turning against it.
Not long after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, draconian new laws were pushed through forcing women to veil in public. Soon “bad hijab” was also criminalized, with women not deemed sufficiently covered up subjected to brutal punishments and jail time.
Controlling women’s activity in public life became a mainstay of the regime’s agenda. A cultural campaign was launched aiming to enforce adherence to the hijab rule. But then, and ever since then, every official drive to force hijab on women has failed – even if the ruling clerics refuse to admit it.
Manifestations of this defeat can be seen these days in the streets and in other public spaces. What’s more, there isn’t much of a consensus among Iranian politicians, clerics and enforcers of “correct” hijab on how much of it is based on Sharia law versus how much of it stems from tradition.
Despite the changing definition of “bad hijab” over different periods, and despite the absence of a consensus on exactly what it means, the Islamic Republic’s guardians of morality continue to pass laws and regulations that are based mainly than their own tastes and interpretations of the scripture.
The most recent research, however, shows that a huge number of Iranian women and schoolgirls are increasingly distancing themselves from so-called “Islamic Jihad”. This study was published under the title “A Study of the Boundaries of Islamic Hijab as Experienced by Students” in the quarterly Journal of Family and Research, a publication stemming from the Ministry of Education’s research center.
The study, whose participants were a group of schoolgirls in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province, focused on six factors affecting their attitude towards hijab : “different interpretations of hijab boundaries”, “the effects of the individual’s past experiences in hijab boundaries”, “the dependence of hijab boundaries on the surrounding environment”, “hijab boundaries as a function of the occasion”, “the effects of cyberspace on hijab observance” and “the weakening of the belief system in hijab”.
With regard to the first factor, the study found that schoolgirls had varying interpretations of what counted as “Islamic hijab”. Some, it found, believe “they are observing hijab even though they are dressed very differently.” There was also an undercurrent of hypocrisy to it, some thought; one student told the researchers: “We have teachers who are morally very bad, but strictly observe hijab.”
On past experiences, the study found that “how the girls have been treated by others” and “the punishments and rewards they have received” affected how they dressed and behaved. Some students who appeared to be defenders of hijab said that wearing hijab had become “a habit”, and pointed out that those who did not veil were often the targets of harassment.
Bagging the Chadors Outside School Gates
The study also noted: “In certain schools and other environments, wearing chador is compulsory even though outside such environments not everybody is happy to wear it... If we look at students when the schools are closed, we see they dress in very different styles, colors and modes.”
“In our school, wearing chador is mandatory but the moment we leave school we put the chadors in our bags,” said one student. “Some the girls would have preferred to wear a manteau.”
Another reported: “Some [girls] are veiled while they’re in their own neighborhoods but not when they go somewhere else.”
With regard to wearing hijab on different occasions, the study found that young women being compelled to wear full chador at Muharram mourning ceremonies, and locations such as graveyards had given it a strong “unpleasant connotation” in the minds of many of them. It also found that increased access to the internet had rendered the veil “meaningless” for some women. “Belief in hijab has weakened because some individuals have not internalized the concept and see it as a political issue,” it said.
The government-sponsored study concluded that schoolgirls’ aversion to “Islamic hijab” was mainly rooted in its “compulsory” nature – and in “a lack of belief” in its ostensible purpose.
Aside from the obvious affront to freedom of expression, the lack of clarity in messaging on “bad hijab” has led to confusion and arbitrary arrests of women. Some years ago in Tehran, a different survey found that just 12 percent of people the Islamic Republic considered “improperly veiled” were women who actively opposed compulsory hijab.
But another official survey found that some 70 percent of all Iranians were against compulsory hijab. The figure has increased in follow-up studies since then. The 70 percent figure was announced in a TV interview with Mehdi Nasiri, former managing director of the ultraconservative newspaper Kayhan, who said that even in religious cities such as Qom the majority of people favored voluntary hijab.
Another study by the Iranian Presidential Center for Strategic Studies, which was published in 2018 but had actually been finalized in 2014, revealed that that nearly half of Iranians wanted hijab to be voluntary, not compulsory. It also summarized the findings of previous surveys in 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2014. In 2006, 34.7 percent of respondents apparently agreed with the statement “Dress type and hijab are personal matters and the government should not intervene.” By 2014, this had increased to 49.2 percent.
Different surveys have yielded different figures. But they leave no doubt that more and more Iranians, especially women, are turning against compulsory hijab. The ruling clerics do not want to accept this reality – at least, not yet.
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