Iranians And The Headscarf — It's Complicated
Media coverage of Iran's mass protests of 2022 failed to truly show how most Iranians thought about the hijab or a general dress code for women. Centering the whole fight for justice in Iran around the headscarf has its risks.
Accounts of the Iranian clerical regime's confrontation with its opponents, which began with their very inception in 1979 and reached a new peak in the mass demonstrations of 2022, have tended to overlook what the Iranian population actually wants.
When Iran's authorities set policies like its hijab or Islamic garment rules, for which Mahsa Amini was beaten to death last September, the people's preferences or views are not part of the process.
The rational solution ultimately may well be a referendum on the obligatory nature of the hijab, which is the way democratic countries tackle divisive issues. Article 59 of the Islamic Republic's constitution allows for a referendum on matters of vital importance or public significance, and the hijab has certainly become one. A referendum is a peaceful solution — violence is costly for both society and state legitimacy — and might even extricate the Islamic Republic from its political and legitimacy impasse.
Naturally, the powers-that-be in Iran will oppose it, fearing its outcome. In a free and entirely regular vote, it is fair to suppose that a majority would reject obligatory hijab or dress rules. Day-to-day observations and field research keep showing that Iranians are opposed to the state telling women how to dress.
Still, this doesn't mean that people have a problem with the hijab itself.
On "improper" attire
The 2015 survey on Iranian "Values and Perspectives" taken by the Ministry of Culture revealed that most respondents opposed the state's enforcement of the wearing hijab, and as events have shown since, this opposition has grown fiercer.
Opposition to enforcing the hijab was strongest in more populous provinces.
In the survey, a majority effectively said they did not see "improper" attire as a vital issue or threat to society (over 78% of respondents said it "wasn't a problem" for them and/or did not merit intervention). Opposition to enforcing the hijab was strongest in more populous provinces.
Contrary to the claims of the editor of the conservative Tehran paper Kayhan, Hussein Shariatmadari — who says "people" will take matters into their own hands if the state doesn't enforce the hijab — Iranians do not see this as closely tied to broader matters of public, or private, morals and decency, not to mention kindness or civic conduct.
Woman in Mehran, Iran.
No consensus on dress code
The Ministry of Culture survey separately showed that very few Iranians (fewer than 9%) thought a girl's attire indicated her suitability as a potential bride, while fewer than 1.5% of respondents expected a good bride to be religious. Again, there is a chasm between Iranian opinion and a recent Interior ministry statement that declared the hijab to be a "vital foundation of the family."
The ministry described it as the "protection" of Muslim women, and denounced its disuse as a "violation" of their "sacred space and identity."
Its recent communiqué seeks to define the hijab as a basic religious duty and effectively, an indicator of faith in God. In other words, it needs to be enforced. That would be akin to forcing the population to pray five times a day. The regime did try that, for a while, after taking power, but today, there is no consensus even among Shia theologians on an obligatory dress code.
Many religious authorities believe people can only be advised, enjoined and persuaded to dress in the "proper" way in public. Curiously, they are more attentive to public opinion than the state, as theirs is a "soft" power of influence and social sway.
As radicals want to force the regime's hands, they have even made the hijab a matter of state security. They now claim it is a rampart — or a Berlin Wall — for the regime, and its removal, a prelude to its downfall. The country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has said that ending the mandatory hijab is the "wish of our enemies."
It is a mistake to equate the two: ending hijab enforcement, which appears to be what most Iranians want, would not herald the end of the Islamic Republic. Some claim that making it voluntary would de-legitimize the regime with diehard loyalists, which is debatable. These are presumably those — possibly fewer than 5% of all Iranians — who told the 2015 survey they did mind seeing women without a headscarf.
Does the regime's survival depend on them and do they back it because they believe in its legitimacy?
It's not the only piece of anti-feminist dysfunction in the Islamic Republic.
Insisting on ending the hijab is a maximalist position at odds with the stated preference of a majority of Iranians. The crux of the matter perhaps is that its obligatory nature makes it a blatant piece of discrimination against women, and their resistance is an entirely legitimate fight for full civil rights.
Nor is it the only piece of anti-feminist dysfunction in the Islamic Republic: consider women's broader social role and position, their employment conditions and rights concerning inheritance, divorce and travel, the equality of decision-making at home, the age at which they marry or number of children they are expected to have. Fighting hijab enforcement complements a broader fight against a host of injustices — though that, admittedly, will challenge the principles of a state that claims to implement the "laws of religion."
Meanwhile, the regime shouldn't be given an excuse to turn headscarves into a tool of repression, especially of people peacefully demanding their rights.
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