The Progression of Iranian Hijab Law
Cultural Dress Laws
Hijab law in Iran has gone through various iterations, ranging from more to less restrictive, but the present regime has arguably produced the harshest penal system of hijab law. Although the Arabic word ‘hijab’ meaning ‘cover’ in Islam has been used to refer to a variety of clothing, it is most frequently used in reference to the cloth covering a woman’s head for modesty. Coverings such as the hijab have historically been fundamental tenets of various faiths, and often those permitted to wear such were seen as possessing qualifications of higher status or virtue. One instance of this was in Mesopotamia wherein only women of higher socioeconomic status were permitted the privilege, whilst unchaste women were prevented from wearing veils. Scriptural portrayals of Semitic women wearing the veil similarly appear to ascribe connotations of higher status.
In Iran the justification for veiled women lies in similar historic religious and cultural roots- stemming from both the Quran and the Hadiths. However, under the current regime, wearing the hijab is prescribed by law, and enforced by the Gasht-e Ershad, also known as the Morality Police, or Guidance Patrol. Prior to the Iranian Revolution, mandates regarding religious coverings were either ineffective or unenforced and choice of covering by Muslim woman was a personal expression of religious faith, identity and a desire to be modest, although family pressure often contributed to the use of the veil. Following the Revolution, under the more orthodox and conservative regime, wearing the hijab became reinforced by a strict penal system. Iranian journalists such as Asieh Amini dispute forced veiling given that so many women freely chose to wear the veil prior to the current restrictions. Notably to Muslim women free from legal mandate, the hijab continues to be a source of pride and identity.
Change in Hijab Law over the Decades
Hijab law was first mentioned in Iranian legislation under Reza Shah in 1936, who created the Kashf-e hijab decree, which banned many types of traditional male clothing and mandated that women be unveiled in public. The decree was executed forcefully, and caused widespread dissent within more religious and conservative communities. Many women wore the hijab in protest of traditional values, or because their choices had been restricted by the patriarchal structure of Iranian culture. Following Reza Shah’s abdication in 1941, legislation concerning the hijab fluctuated under Iranian law until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The leader of this insurrection, Ayatollah Khomeini, suggested that mandated use of the hijab would become commonplace. In March of the same year, mass protests occurred throughout Iran, resulting in the restrictions being dropped.
However in July of 1981 mandatory veiling was decreed, and later in 1983, wearing hijab in public became enforced by Islamic Punishment Law, even for those non-Muslims living in and visiting Iran. Enforcement of this law has fluctuated throughout the period since the Revolution, becoming less restrictive under President Hassan Rohani (2013-2021). However, in August of 2021, President Ebrahim Raisi was elected -although many argue this was rigged- and he promised to increase restrictions. Raisi, previous chairman of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, suggested that the enactment of a 2006 bylaw on ‘hijab and chastity’ should be fully implemented. The aftermath of his suggestion included broadcasting the significance of the hijab, and using increasingly militaristic methods to enforce its use.
On July 5 of 2022 Raisi implemented a new crackdown upon the ‘improper hijab’- the new restrictions mandate that female head scarfs ought to cover neck and shoulders as well as the head. In addition, female employees were forbidden from wearing high heels. In the event those rules were not followed, those women not wearing the clothing in the correct manner would be banned from public transport. Alongside de jure restriction, in periods of growing restriction it is not uncommon for Muslim vigilantes, to participate in de facto restriction upon female dress and activity in the public sphere.
Contemporary Hijab law in Iran
It is suggested that Raisi decided to harden his hijab agenda to strengthen the legitimacy of his presidency by creating a cause for many Iranians to rally around. However, unfortunately for Raisi, his policies have created a rejection of intense pro-hijab propaganda, culminating in a high level of resistance from Iranian women. Although the punishments permitted by law are extremely harsh- such as 74 lashes, or imprisonment for up to two months- the norm seems to be that women are sent to Guidance Centres- such as is the case in Tehran. That being said, in the case where women protest enforced veiling, rather than improperly wearing the hijab the punishment could amount to execution.
Guidance Centres are correctional facilities where women violating Hijab law are taught how to dress appropriately. While many women return home the same day, some are detained for longer periods. Women could be sent to such a facility because they are not wearing a hijab, their hijab is too colourful, or even that a few hairs are showing. The law provides a lack of close guidance regarding the definition of an improper covering, which allows for an alarming amount of interpretation. The Morality police are notorious for responding with ‘inhuman brutality’ to those women (and occasionally men) who are deemed to be dressing incorrectly, The Morality Police have access to surveillance across Iran, and forced veiling laws allow them to apply their interpretation of a ‘improper hijab’ how they see fit. Reports suggest that these officers treat women that they determine as wearing a ‘bad hijab’ with an extreme level of disregard condoned by the regime. The infamous case of Amini, the Muslim woman who died as a result of harsh treatment, at the hands of the Morality Police instantiates this.
Continued efforts to renegotiate rights
In September 2022, Mahsa Amini was in Tehran when she was arrested by the Morality Police and was accused of not properly covering herself. Eyewitnesses reported her being severely beaten by the officers, who struck her head with a baton and later crashed her into the van she was later escorted away in. Amini fell into a coma shortly after being detained at the guidance centre and passed away three days later. Although authorities maintain that Amini died from natural causes, her death sparked widespread protest throughout Iran. Although protests against the mandatory hijab occurred well before Amini’s death, tensions have been amplified by such a publicly violent event . High levels of protest are now occurring throughout Iran, with women refusing to wear coverings in public, and even cutting their hair in front of crowds in defiance.
The response of the regime has been swift and violent, condemning the protests as a front for dissenters to criticise the establishment. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,Nada al-Nashif, noted reports of massively disproportionate violence directed toward those participating in the protests against Amini’s death. One such protest took place at an elite university in Tehran, resulting in the Minister of Science, Research, and Technology rushing to the scene to discipline those students involved. Political protest is now dying down but analysts believe that female resistance to mandatory veiling laws will only increase from hereafter.