POLICE in Tehran arrested 29 women in February for protesting against a law that makes the wearing of hijab compulsory. The arrests came as women across Iran have been posting pictures of themselves bare-headed and waving their veils aloft on sticks. Police said that the campaign had been instigated from outside Iran through illegal satellite channels. But Soheila Jolodarzadeh, a female member of the Iranian parliament, said the protests had been brewing for a while. “They’re happening because of our wrong approach,” she said. “We imposed restrictions on women and put them under unnecessary restraints.” How likely are women to win the battle of the headscarf? And what do these protests tell us about the state of Iranian politics?
The veil has long been a proxy for politics in Iran. Several times in the past century the authorities have drastically changed the dress codes for women. First came Reza Shah, Iran’s autocratic ruler in the 1930s, who adopted the secular approach of his Turkish counterpart, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In the name of modernisation, he banned the veil and dispatched his police to rip them off mullahs’ wives. Forty years later, in 1979, the ayatollahs took their revenge against the secular state and sent bareheaded leftists home to put the veil back on. The penal code mandated two months in prison for any woman caught flouting the dress code. Morality police, who styled themselves “the patrol of God’s vengeance”, prowled the streets, shouting “Ya rusari ya tusari” (“Either cover or suffer”).
But the Islamic Republic also encouraged women into education and by the 1990s, female students outnumbered men at universities. Women started to assert their right first to show a few forelocks, then their fringe. In the offices of wealthy north Tehran some have sloughed off the veil altogether. The recent protests may be only nibbling at the edges of the established religious order, but they are symbolic of a broader unease that could turn into something bigger. They have come on the heels of broader demonstrations last December, led by working-class men in provincial cities, against unaccountable vested interests and the corruption of the religious elite. Perhaps in an attempt to deter the mostly middle-class female protesters from joining the broader demonstrations, Tehran’s chief of police said in December that women would no longer be detained for taking off the veil—but would be sent for re-education instead. In fact, this only encouraged the trend for unveiling, prompting a new backlash from police.
Spokesmen for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decry an American plot. But more serious minds in the government and outside it are asking whether the veil has become less a mark of faith than a symbol of male domination. The Prophet Muhammad required his wives to wear the veil, notes one official in Tehran, but not ordinary women. Supporters of Hassan Rouhani, the president, released an opinion poll they conducted in 2014 which showed half of Iranians saying the veil should be a matter of personal choice. The regime may now be weighing up if it is worth allowing broader, long-term reform on issues such as women’s dress, if it makes it easier to retain overall control of the country.