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Society & Culture

Hijab Patrols: Coming to a Hospital Near you

August 30, 2016
Shima Shahrabi
4 min read
Hijab Patrols: Coming to a Hospital Near you

Tehran authorities have instructed morality police to enforce “proper hijab” in hospitals, ordering regular inspections to ensure that female nurses are covered up in line with Islamic values. 

On August 27, Tehran’s chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi announced that “invisible” patrols would be monitoring hospitals starting on August 31, reviewing the dress of female employees. 

But the news came as no surprise to hospital staff, as the majority of them have been aware of the Ministry of Health directive for more than a month. On nurse said those carrying out the covert operation had been instructed to report their findings directly to the ministry.

The decision led to a string of debates and angry protests on Telegram in August. But male nurse Mansour believes it is fruitless to protest. “The health minister is so obstinate that he is not going to give an inch,” he said. “He has ordered it personally and it is going to start on August 31. Within three months all medical centers are going to be inspected by Medical Community Basij.” The Medical Community Basij is comprised of medical staff who are also members of the umbrella Basij [“Mobilization”] paramilitary organization, an ever-present force across Iranian cities. The Basij organization is responsible for ensuring the public behaves in line with moral standards set out by Islamic Republic officials. 

The recent controversy over hijabs in hospitals began when the semi-official Fars News Agency reported that private hospitals in Tehran were paying nurses a “make-up” stipend. The Iran Nursing Organization disputed the report and said that Fars had provided no evidence to support its claims. But it was too late: Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi had already ordered the Medical Community Basij to pursue the matter.

When Tehran’s prosecutor went public on August 27, it led to wrangling between some key health officials. Mohammad Reza Beigi, Deputy Health Minister for Nursing, expressed his displeasure that the media was informed of the decision before he and other officials were. “If such a problem exists I wish Mr. Prosecutor would have talked it over with the officials [of the Health Ministry] before making it public...Letting the media know should be the last resort, not the first one.”

Beigi said that, prior to the announcement, he had not been aware of any particular problems regarding the dress of female hospital employees. “People from every walk of life go to medical centers,” he said, so he was shocked to hear that the prosecutor had singled out health care facilities as presenting possible threats to Islamic values. “I did not even receive a letter, a phone call or a request from him to investigate the matter,” he said.

Paid Informants

I spoke with a nurse called Atefeh. She had been following the debates online along with colleagues. “It seems that the ministry has signed contracts with the Medical Community Basij and has been paying them,” Atefeh said. “For example, they trained the Basij to investigate MMT [methadone maintenance treatment] centers to prevent the illegal methadone trade. Now they have delegated the hijab issue to the Basij as well.”

Atefeh said she did not think it fell under the Basij’s remit to  enforce hijab. Like others, she has discovered that the Basij will be sending their reports electronically to the Health Ministry; the ministry will then notify its officials to take action. “Then, based on guidelines, the deputy minister would decide what to do with the medical center in question — shut it down, impose a fine or something else.”

Mansour said that the stealth patrols carried out by the Basij are intended to monitor all violations; the hijab patrol is just one part of this mission. Mansour works for private hospitals, so I asked him what he knew about the alleged make-up stipends. “Two years ago they were talking about it at Payambaran Hospital,” he said. “It was not itemized on their pay stubs, but the nurses were told that the more presentable, clean and fashionable they looked, the more money they would receive per patient.” 

Atefeh confirmed this. “They want the nurses to look clean and presentable,” she said, “and it doesn’t matter whether they are male or female. For example, the former matron at the hospital used to say that we would get better compensation if the girls have prettier nail polish and the boys are more presentable and elegant.” She laughed and added, “this is going on at many private hospitals. When you go to hospitals, you notice that the nurses were not hired only for their experience and knowledge. How they look is also important.”

No further information has been provided as to how extensive the Basij patrols will be. But the prosecutor’s recent announcement is a clear reminder that the issue of “Islamic” dress and conduct continues to be a key concern for Iran’s more conservative factions — and that a woman’s failure to follow the rules can lead to serious repercussions.