Analysis |

Iran's 'Hijab War' Won't Diminish Its anti-Western Identity

The hijab has been a dynamic, fraught political symbol in Iran ever since the Islamic Revolution. In the latest battle over the headscarf, does an impending nuclear accord have anything to do with the quashing of the protests against Mahsa Amini's killing?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Demonstrations in Tehran, this week. For the regime, the very criticism of the West is the best proof of the righteousness of its path.
Demonstrations in Tehran, this week. For the regime, the very criticism of the West is the best proof of the righteousness of its path.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Three days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran's morality police, the speaker of Iran's parliament, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, announced he intends to look into the authorities of the force and its treatment of detainees.

While several local media outlets published interviews and articles cautiously criticism of the morality police's conduct, Iran's police and security personnel continued to violently suppress the mass protests that erupted in several cities across the country.

Public condemnation and promises of investigation into the morality police ("Gasht-e Ershad" in Farsi) are nothing new. In July, a video circulated in Iran showing a woman holding onto a morality police's notorious green-striped white van while yelling at the drivers to release her daughter, who was apparently detained for a hijab-related offense. The woman failed to stop the vehicle, which sped away, but the scene shocked many and caused a public uproar. The authorities announced that they would take steps against the van’s driver and would “reconsider” the morality police’s rules of conduct.

Protesters burning trash cans in Tehran, this week. Public criticism in Iran against the morality police is not new.Credit: AFP

The hijab has been mandated by law since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the aim of demonstrating the religious character of a state that made the Shi'ite interpretation of Islamic law the country's constitution.

Just as family honor is defined through the behavior of its female members, this external symbol, which is incumbent solely on women, was a response to the national-secular policies imposed by the first shah, Reza Shah Pahlavi. In 1936, he issued an order barring women of all religions from wearing head coverings of any kind and even authorized their forcible removal, viewing them as a symbol of backwardness.

“The most horrendous crime the shah ever committed was the ban on the hijab,” said Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei in 2016. “He wanted the public to immerse itself in lust and to forget about everything else.”

The hijab's political symbolism also played an important role in the run-up to the Islamic Revolution, when women wore them to protest the shah’s corrupt reign and to show their willingness to join the uprising that ultimately brought his rule to an end.

Its symbolism continued after the Islamic Revolution revealed its oppressive and brutal character, when opposition to the hijab came not only to be an emblem of women’s emancipation but of opposition to the regime. Women shared videos in which they were seen without the veil or defiantly removing them.

Mahsa Amini's photo at a support demonstration in Istanbul, yesterday. Women began to use the hijab as a fashion item, wearing it loosely that exposes their hair and sometimes even removing it completely.Credit: OZAN KOSE - AFP

When Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013, he signaled a more flexible policy in regard to the hijab and even tried to limit the powers of the morality police. “Our primary duty is to respect people’s dignity and personality. Allah granted dignity to each and every human being and that dignity prevails over religion,” he said. The hijab requirement was never abolished, but women did start to use it as a fashion accessory: to wrap in such a way as to expose some of their hair, to buy colorful versions of the veil, and in some cases to take it off altogether. Thus, the hijab became a political symbol of female identity.

The more liberal policies of the Rouhani era didn’t stop the well-funded morality police from arresting hundreds of women, putting them on trial and sentencing them to prison. And, with the rise to power of Ebrahim Raisi as president, the “hijab war” intensified with thousands of new officers recruited to the morality police, which were awarded additional powers. It became one of the main tools of the regime’s “soft power” campaign against Western influence and “the invasion of corrupt Western values into the Islamic Republic.”

Meanwhile, protests against the veil grew. When Iran was observing “Hijab and Modesty Week” in July, women held rallies and protests where they publicly removed their veils or put them on their shoulders. A short time later, the morality police announced that it would begin to employ face-identification technology to find the “offenders” and bring them to justice.

Several Iranian analysts see a link between the regime’s crackdown against those who violate the hijab laws and the ongoing negotiations over reviving the nuclear accord. Those who had opposed the original 2015 agreement and currently oppose reaching a new one are fearful about the consequences of foreign companies entering Iran – that they will bring with them Western culture and behavior, “criminal and worthless values” and undermine the principles upon which the Islamic Revolution was built.

Khamenei himself has expressed such concerns several times, positioning the “soft war” to defend Iran against the dangers of a foreign cultural invasion. In that context, he has demanded greater religious awareness, stepped-up supervision and punishment of “religious offenders,” which, of course, includes enforcing “proper hijab” requirements.

This defense is aimed both at appeasing conservative activists and at making it clear to the West that a nuclear agreement won’t come at the expense of “the fundamental values of the revolution.” Iran won’t accept cultural dictates from outside powers, some of whom once occupied the country, aided the shah for their own benefit and destroyed the country’s economic infrastructure – not only by the sanctions of the last years but many decades before that.

Protesters dressed in black flee from the police in Iran, this week. The morality police announced that it will start using facial recognition technology to locate 'criminals'.Credit: AP

The revolution, they explain, promised Iranians a better life, which can be accomplished by reaching an agreement that lifts the sanctions imposed on Iran. But only Islamic law, and Iran’s constitution which is based on it, can ensure the people’s rights. Thus, if the campaign to ensure Iran’s identity and character requires a few sacrifices, like Mahsa Amini and other women, that’s a fair price to pay. The West’s criticism is, thus, the best proof of the righteousness of the regime’s path.

This policy also aims at sending a message to other Muslim countries that Tehran believes are aping the West and abandoning Islamic values. Saudi Arabia, with which Iran has held talks about restoring diplomatic relations, is its prime case study. Its de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, has dramatically reduced the powers of the Kingdom’s morality police and has even arrested many of them as part of his strategy of improving Saudi Arabia’s image. The Crown Prince has compounded this sin by hosting international cultural and entertainment events, reopening the cinema and has even developed a local film industry as a way of generating new tax revenues for the state.

Egypt and Jordan also have their morality police, but they operate under the close supervision of the state, which defines their purview. In Egypt for example, the veil also acts as a political symbol, apart from its traditional meaning. In the past, the government forbade television newsreaders and presenters from wearing one, since the authorities saw the hijab as an expression of support or identification with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Even today, wariness about the “political hijab” discourages hotels, restaurants, and cafés in wealthy areas from letting hijab-clad women from entering.

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