Summer arrived early in Iran this year, and withthe hot May days the annual drive against “bad hejab” tookon greater force than usual. Police arrested thousands ofwomen deemed to be flouting laws requiring covering inpublic, seizing women with hair spilling out from headscarves or whose coats were too short or too tight.
There has been talk of offending women being exiled fromTehran, although nearly all are released quickly aftersigning a pledge to dress better in future.
The crackdown has also targeted shops selling shortmanteaus, the lighter body-covering coat chosen by manyupper-class and younger women in preference to the moretraditional, all-enveloping black chador.
Pressure for the police action had been building up for sometime. Senior ayatollahs in the holy city of Qom have longbeen disgruntled with what they see as the lax socialpolicies of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, epitomized by hisdecision last year – later suspended by supreme leaderAyatollah Ali Khamenei – to allow women to be spectators atfootball matches.
Conservative parliamentary deputies had claimed visitorsfrom other Muslim countries, especially the Arab states ofthe Gulf, were shocked by the display in Tehran of highheels, heavy make-up, and dyed blonde hair. “Men see modelsin the streets and ignore their own wives at home,” saidMohammad Taqi Rahbar, a prominent parliamentarian. “Thisweakens the pillars of the family.”
At the beginning of May, conservative students at Tehran’sAmir Kabir university protested after a lecturer hadallegedly insulted a student by pulling her hair out. Therewere similar gripes among the conservative media after thepresident kissed the gloved hand of his formerschool-teacher, now an elderly woman, whom he met by chanceat a ceremony for National Teachers Day.
Like many other aspects of life – including business andsport – women’s clothing is highly politicized in Iran, withfactions eager to gain advantage against rivals. Few areinterested in the point made by Mohammad Ali Abtahi, theformer reformist vice-president, that religious laws arebetter advanced through persuasion than through penalties.The conservative parliament elected in 2004 has spent manyhours debating the need for a ‘national Islamic dress’ andeven encouraged Islamic fashion shows.
On the other side, ‘secularist’ satellite television, whichis beamed into Iran from exiled opposition groups mainly inLos Angeles, features unveiled women announcers and evenskimpily dressed Iranian pop stars. Western media coverage,meanwhile, often reduces women’s rights to opposition tohejab.
In the resulting melee, more important issues facing womenin Iran tend to be brushed aside. On the president’sprovincial trips, he receives tens of thousands of lettershanded in at special collection points. The vast majority ofthose who write them are women, and they concern theunemployment of their sons, or the cost of housing, or amyriad of day-to-day issues rather than hejab. Others writeabout the hardship of raising a family alone after losingtheir husband in the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
Iran is a deeply conservative society. A young man may wearhair gel and curse “the mullahs,” but may still not take hiswife to Dubai on holiday for fear of other males looking ather in the mall.
For Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979Revolution, hejab was a means for women to come out of thehome and move in society. The Islamic Republic’s legalrequirement of hejab reconciled many fathers to theirdaughters attending university. Of the 600,000 enteringhigher education every year, 60% are women.
Woman can vote, stand for most public office, drive andsmoke in public. The contrast with Saudi Arabia, and someother Arab Muslim countries, could hardly be greater.
But various other inequalities persist. Although polygamy israre, it is still allowed, and women’s inheritance anddivorce rights are inferior to men’s.
Syma Sayyah, who stood in Tehran unsuccessfully as anindependent in December’s local elections, says Iranianwomen need a “reality check” to concentrate on what’simportant.
“We keep hearing that 60 odd percent of university studentsare women, but where are these graduates in the work place?”she asks. Most who dare to tip their toes into reality andget a job do so temporarily and until they or their familyfinds the ‘right husband.’ Middle and upper-middle classwomen are the worst.”
Sayyah’s advice to women is therefore straightforward. “Geta good solid education and training that leads to a decent,well-paid job. Then work on the legal inequalities withregard to marriage, inheritance and so on.”