Battle Over Mandatory Hijab Reflects New Spirit Among Iran's Youth

Many Iranians are protesting what’s been described as Tehran's morality attack, while the country's military forces approach a turning point.

A photo taken from the Facebook page of Masih Alinejad, called 'My Stealthy Freedom.'
Masih Alinejad / Facebook

The Facebook account of Masih Alinejad, called “My Stealthy Freedom,” features some unusual pictures, including men donning a woman’s hijab, women with short hair wearing men’s clothes and hundreds of comments from surfers commending these men and women.

Alinejad is an Iranian who lives in New York. She has joined the battle against the so-called Iranian hijab law, which requires all females above age 7 to cover their heads. The Tehran police recruited 7,000 undercover cops to arrest the courageous women who dare to walk about without head coverings, and even women riding a bicycle with hair exposed – in a park for women only. The policemen’s job is to detect cases of violation of morality, as the police commissioner put it. Women caught red-handed are detained, rebuked and sometimes imprisoned or given a heavy fine.

The protest in the face of what has been described as the regime’s morality attack – which has included, among other things, the tearing down of more than 100,000 satellite dishes as a show of power – may be hopeless. But judging by the uproar on social media, it isn’t over.

The battle against the mandatory hijab reflects a new spirit among young Iranians, and their disappointment with the results of the nuclear agreement with the world powers. They had dreamed of an economic rebound and more openness to the West. Indeed, foreign companies are signing huge contracts with Iranian government companies, and the number of Western tourists in Iran has increased. But the resulting prosperity isn’t trickling down to the people.

Unemployment hasn’t decreased, American sanctions still block any transactions in dollars and when the police arrest 150 kids for participating in a mixed male-female party, the rage only increases – not only against the conservatives but against the president, Hassan Rohani, who can’t seem to translate the nuclear agreement into economic and social change.

Under such circumstances, the regime has also found itself trapped in a dangerous paradox.

Two months ago, the Iranian Trade Ministry presented Apple with an ultimatum: either it open a local branch in Iran or the regime would block all iPhones from entering the country, causing the company tens of millions of dollars worth of damage. Iranians presently own about six million iPhones, most smuggled into the country through Dubai. Apple has made millions from this smuggling, while the regime hasn’t seen a single rial.

But it isn’t the desire for income from selling iPhones that has the regime up in arms, it’s the necessity of breaking through the American wall of sanctions. The logic behind the ultimatum is that Apple won’t want to lose its income from Iran and will press Washington to lift the sanctions.

It’s hard to see Apple scoffing at the law and opening a branch in Tehran. But the mere fact of an Iranian ultimatum demanding that an American company – one responsible for “importing” Western culture to Iran – open a local affiliate attests to the contradiction inherent in Iranian policy.

It takes a veterinarian

The Apple case is, of course, just one example of the power struggles raging in Iran – between elements trying to cast off Western influence, mainly American, and those who would expand trading ties with the United States; or between those with old-school interests such as the Revolutionary Guards and darlings of the regime, and the Rohani government, which would prefer to open up the Iranian economy and eradicate the monopolies that are holding it by the throat.

The Iranian presidential elections are 10 months away but the closer that vote comes, the more these internal struggles will escalate – and they are not passing over military circles, either.

In late June, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Mohammad Hossein Bagheri chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, replacing Hassan Firouzabadi, who held the post from 2002. Before that, Firouzabadi had been deputy chief of staff from 1989. Bagheri is a veteran soldier who had headed the military’s intelligence and operational divisions, while Firouzabadi is a veterinarian by profession, whose strength lies in his close ties to Khamenei.

But it was not issues of military prowess that led to the foment at the top: Khamenei aspires, again, to unite the country’s security units forces and forge a single military entity that will finally end the anomaly of Iran having two armies: the regular one and the Revolutionary Guards.

Such efforts failed in the past mainly because of the power struggles between the army and the Revolutionary Guards. But the appointment of Bagheri, who is very close to the Guards and a crony of its commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, and of Qasem Soleimani, the Guards’ previous commander, could be a turning point.

Putting the Revolutionary Guards and their loyalists in charge of managing the army is designed to make the entire military establishment more efficient and to reduce on Iran’s humongous security costs. But it will also serve as a powerful barrier to the reforms that Rohani would like to implement. Apple, and even the hijab, are about to become smaller problems.