Iran Is Doubling Down on Headscarves

“You are provoking people to defiance. You will distance them more from Islam and its commandments. You will further distance the public in terms of women’s dress from your standards.” This is how the reformist newspaper Ham-Mihan reacted to the bill that was passed by Iran’s parliament on Sept. 20, 2023, seeking to enforce the mandatory hijab law more strictly, including through fines and prison sentences for violators.

The bill, which still needs the approval of the Guardian Council, is a clear sign of the widening gap between the Islamic Republic and Iranian society—especially its women and youth, who have increasingly defied the state-imposed dress code over the past year.

The mandatory hijab law has been one of the most controversial and contested aspects of the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979. The law requires all women to cover their hair and body in public. It has been seen by many Iranians as a symbol of the state’s interference in their personal lives, a violation of their human rights and freedoms, and a tool of oppression and discrimination against women.

The enforcement of the law has varied over time, depending on the political climate and the balance of power between different factions. In general, there have been two main camps within the Islamic Republic system regarding how to enforce the law: One camp advocates for a more flexible approach, relying more on cultural programs and social persuasion, and the other camp insists on a more rigid and strict approach, resorting more to legal enforcement, including by the infamous guidance patrols (morality police) or other legal sanctions and punishments.

The former camp has been favored by the more moderate and pragmatic elements of the system, such as the reformists and technocrats, who view the hijab as a matter of personal preference and social convention. The latter camp is favored by the more conservative and hard-line elements of the Islamic Republic, such as some senior clerics, the judiciary, and the members of the Revolutionary Guard, who view hijab as a nonnegotiable symbol of their religious identity and authority.

The current bill passed by the parliament is an example of the latter approach. Officially called “Supporting the Family by Promoting the Culture of Chastity and Hijab,” it contains a series of harsh provisions that violate human rights and personal freedoms.

According to the bill, anyone who does not follow the government’s dress code in public places or roads will face hefty fines and other punishments. The fines range from 20 million rials (about $404 in the United States) to 80 million rials ($1,618) for the first offense and can increase to 180 million rials ($3,640) for subsequent offenses. Moreover, repeat offenders could also be subjected to imprisonment, a travel ban, or internet restrictions.

The bill targets anyone who “collaborates” with foreign entities or promotes a culture of “immodesty, non-hijab, or improper dressing,” online or offline. Such individuals will face severe penalties, including one to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to 1 billion rials ($8,000), a travel ban, and a work prohibition. Additionally, owners of businesses that advertise any form of “nudity, immodesty, lack of hijab, or improper dressing in their workplace” will also be penalized. For the third instance of such a violation, they will also be sentenced to one to five years in prison.

The bill also criminalizes anyone who insults or mocks the hijab online or offline. They will be fined up to 360 million rials ($1,440), banned from leaving the country for up to two years, and banned from public activity in cyberspace for six months to two years. In subsequent cases, they will also be sentenced to one to five years in prison. This harsh legislation, however, is not yet final and could face some obstacles before becoming law.

One of these potential hurdles is the approval of the Guardian Council, a powerful body that consists of 12 members (six clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six lawyers elected by parliament) who have the authority to vet all legislation for its conformity with Islamic law and constitutional principles. The Guardian Council has not yet announced its decision on whether it will approve or reject the bill. However, considering its conservative composition, it is widely expected to approve it.

Despite this expectation, not everyone thinks approval is inevitable. Some Iranian legal experts, such as Mohammad Hadi Jafarpour, argue that the bill is unconstitutional. Jafarpour points out that the bill was passed in an unusual way, using the rarely invoked Article 85 of the constitution, which allowed it to bypass the normal parliamentary process. This process involves a public debate on the parliament floor that is broadcast on national radio and television. The bill avoided this and was instead debated by a committee and passed as an “experimental law” for three years. Jafarpour says that this violates the Guardian Council’s previous rulings on the conditions for using this provision and gives it enough reason to reject the bill.

The Iranian parliament passed this bill four days after the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died after being arrested by the guidance patrol for allegedly violating proper hijab rules. Her death ignited the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, a spontaneous and diverse uprising across Iran that demanded justice, freedom, and dignity, and was led by women and youth.

While the uprising did not achieve its immediate goals of overthrowing the Islamic Republic or bringing about radical reforms, it has had significant impacts on Iran’s society and politics. Arguably, most significantly it has sparked a sort of cultural revolution, with many women boldly and defiantly going into the public without hijabs across the country. This phenomenon is not limited to secular or urban women but has also affected many religious and more rural families. Even in religious ceremonies, some women have participated without hijabs, showing how large parts of even traditional society have acquiesced to this change and share the grievances of the protest movement.

The bill that was passed by parliament reveals the dilemma that the Islamic Republic faces in dealing with the uprising and its aftermath. It reflects the Islamic Republic’s struggle to balance its ideological principles with its pragmatic interests; its alienation of a large segment of its population; the erosion of its legitimacy; and how it provokes more resistance and dissent from its critics.

The bill shows how the Islamic Republic is caught between two contradictory impulses: to maintain its identity as an Islamic state that is based on sharia law or to adapt to the changing realities of a society that is becoming more diverse, modernized, secularized, and globalized. The bill represents an attempt by the Islamic Republic to assert its identity as an Islamic state by enforcing one of its core symbols: the hijab. However, this attempt also exposes how out of touch the Islamic Republic is with its society, which has largely rejected its version of Islam as oppressive and irrelevant.

The bill also shows how the Islamic Republic is intensifying its alienation of a large segment of its population. Women comprise the majority of Iran’s university students, accounting for more than 60 percent of the enrollment. Women have also been vital actors in Iran’s social movements throughout history. Women contribute significantly to Iran’s economy, culture, arts, and sciences, despite facing discrimination, marginalization, and violation by the government’s policies and practices. This bill will only further alienate women from the Islamic Republic, and it will only increase their determination to resist and challenge it.

The bill, if approved by the Guardian Council, will mark a new phase in the Islamic Republic’s attempt to impose its ideology and authority on its people. It will also mark a new challenge for Iranian society, especially women, who have shown their courage and defiance in the face of oppression and injustice. The bill will not only violate human rights and personal freedoms, but also create more social problems and conflicts.

As the Ham-Mihan newspaper, one of the few independent media outlets in Iran, wrote in its editorial criticizing the bill: “If we assume that you have forced people to observe it, what will happen afterward? Will society become healthier? Will people become more Muslim? Will people be more satisfied? It is obvious that all these answers are negative. You will increase tensions between women and families with the police and judiciary.”

The bill is not a solution, but a symptom of a deeper crisis that the Islamic Republic is facing. It’s a crisis that can only be resolved by listening to the voices and demands of the Iranian people, not by silencing and punishing them.

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