The Swiss Ambassador's Chador
Pictures of the Swiss ambassador to Tehran during a visit to the Shrine of Masoumeh in the central city of Qom last week was splashed in media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Republic, with captions and titles emphasizing that the European envoy was wearing a head-to-toe black outfit.
The images of a smiling Nadine Olivieri Lozano next to beaming clergymen sparked outrage both inside and outside Iran, with critics saying they served as a “legitimization” of the mandatory hijab rules at a time when the Islamic Republic is facing more than five months of nationwide protests demanding more freedoms and women’s rights.
Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs explained that the ambassador simply observed the appropriate “clothing protocol for women” when visiting the religious site.
Lozano was appointed Swiss ambassador to Tehran in July 2022, around two months before the outbreak of public anger triggered by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of morality police. Amini had been arrested for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly.
The Iranian authorities have unleashed a brutal crackdown on the anti-government protest movement, killing more than 520 people and illegally detaining over 19,000, activists say. Following biased trials, the judiciary has handed down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters. Four young men were executed amid international condemnation.
This is not the first time that Swiss officials have complied with the Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab law. In 2008, then-Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey was criticized for wearing a head covering during her visit to Iran.
Protests by Women’s Rights Activists
All women in Iran must conceal their hair with a headscarf, or hijab, while in public and wear loose fitting trousers under their coats.
Women’s rights activists and opponents of mandatory hijab have consistently asked Western officials to refuse to wear a head covering while visiting Iran.
The Swiss ambassador’s decision to wear a head-to-toe black clothing, the most visible symbol of the Islamic Republic’s policy of subjugating women, has triggered widespread condemnation on social media.
🎥 واکنشهای گسترده به حضور سفیر سوییس با چادر در قم#مهسا_امینی #حجاب_اجباری #اخبار_ایران pic.twitter.com/NWZGx9HGkr— ایران وایر (@iranwire) February 23, 2023
“Shameful & betrayal to Iranian women,” U.S.-Iranian activist Masih Alinejad tweeted.
While teenagers & women are getting beaten, jailed & killed for saying NO to forced hijab, NO to gender apartheid regime, Swiss ambassador in Iran obeyed forced hijab. Shameful & betrayal to Iranian women.— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) February 23, 2023
Switzerland must respond why they took side with our killers.#MahsaAmini pic.twitter.com/w4BkQGKkqt
Darya Safaei, a member of the Belgian parliament, accused the Swiss envoy of making “publicity for the oppressors."
Swiss ambassador Nadine Olivieri Lozano wears a chador & goes to a mosque with the mullahs.— Darya Safai MP (@SafaiDarya) February 22, 2023
While millions of Iranian women are fighting for women's rights and knowing that thousands have been killed for it, she wears a hijab and makes publicity for the oppressors.
Articles in the Swiss press questioned the ambassador’s outfit choice, suggesting it revealed a false understanding of Switzerland’s neutrality and disrespect for the popular protests in Iran. Some voices even accused the envoy of “complicity of murder.”
Controversies Started right after the Revolution
Olivieri Lozano is not the first European woman who has spawned a controversy by wearing hijab while visiting Iran.
Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was the first Western woman whose picture in hijab was published after the 1979 revolution that established the Islamic Republic. Fallaci had to wear a chador when interviewing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, on September 12, 1979.
“Tell me, why do you force [women] to hide themselves, all bundled up under these uncomfortable and absurd garments, making it hard to work and move?” the journalist asked Khomeini, adding that “women have demonstrated that they are equal to men.”
“They fought just like the men, were imprisoned and tortured. They, too, helped to make the revolution.”
“This is none of your business, our customs are none of your business,” Khomeini replied. “If you do not like Islamic dress, you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women.”
In response, Fallaci took off her chador, saying, “That's very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I'm going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.”
In 1995, the Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto paid a visit to Iran during the presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
“To welcome the Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, we went to Mehrabad Airport,” Rafsanjani wrote in his memoirs. “As she had promised, she was wearing an Iranian chador and a good and proper headscarf. We went to the ceremonies together, and she did not shake hands with officials.”
Rafsanjani’s successor, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, was harshly criticized by his hard-line opponents for meeting with women who did not observe the “Islamic dress code.”
Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, often a loose cannon, usually did not mind meeting foreign women without hijab. He gave an interview to Spanish reporter Ana Pastor, who did not wear a head covering, and during the 2013 funeral ceremony of Hugo Chávez, Ahmadinejad embraced the Venezuelan president’s grieving mother.
Allies Don’t Need to Wear Hijab
The first European state official who refused to wear a hijab was perhaps Emma Bonino, the Italian Foreign Minister from 2013 to 2014. In 2013, in the first visit by an Italian foreign minister to Iran in a decade, she traveled to Tehran to meet with then-President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
A month after the visit, the website Jahan News claimed that Iranian officials did not meet Bonino because she refused to wear a hijab. According to the report, when the plane carrying the Italian minister landed in Tehran, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s chief of protocol offered her “three colorful headscarves,” but Bonino said she would not wear them. When told that she must follow the protocol, Bonino replied, “The same way that Iranian officials refuse to attend our banquets because we serve alcoholic beverages, I also refuse to accept this restriction.” Jahan News reported that, after a long discussion, Bonimo finally put on a headscarf.
However, pictures published by Iranian media outlets showed that Bonino and a woman accompanying her had disembarked from the plane without headscarves.
In general, European officials have observed hijab rules when visiting Iran to prevent stoking tensions with the Islamic Republic, and they have been criticized in their own countries for that.
Swedish Minister of Foreign Trade Ann Linde wore a headscarf during her Tehran visit in 2016 during which participated in the celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Iranian community organizations in Sweden said that Linde's participation in the celebrations was an insult to all Iranians living in Sweden who had to flee the clerical regime.
Apparently, however, the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code does not apply to “allies” of the Islamic Republic. Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, accompanied Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Tehran in June 2022. During an official meeting at the Foreign Ministry, Zakharova was wearing a headscarf and a manteau, but her legs were not covered.