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Iran’s Hijab Protests Are of Raisi’s Own Making

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi emboldened the morality police to bolster his wobbly administration. The opposite has happened.

By , a journalist and Asia Times correspondent.
A poster of Raisi's face lies on the ground with footprints across it.
A poster of Raisi's face lies on the ground with footprints across it.
People step on a poster of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at a protest outside of the United Nations in New York City on Sept. 21. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Nationwide protests in Iran over the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman arrested and widely believed to have been beaten by the country’s infamous morality police over a loosely worn headscarf, have partially subsided, though sporadic outbursts of anger continue to spring up on university campuses and in some neighborhoods in larger cities.

Over the past three weeks, Iran has witnessed episodes unprecedented in their dreadfulness: An elite university in Tehran where students had staged protests came under siege for a half a day, and the government’s minister of science, research, and technology, Mohammad Ali Zolfigol, rushed to the campus to brandish disciplinary action against student activists; security forces have unleashed violence against random people on the streets and beat them with batons; at least 40 journalists have been detained just for doing their jobs; a traumatizing internet blackout has cut people off from their loved ones and the outside world; and more.

Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has been treating the notion of hijab, the Islamic dress code for women, with excessive urgency and as a burning issue with no expiry date. In 1983, the Iranian parliament made wearing hijab officially mandatory and stipulated a sentence of up to 74 lashes for women seen not to be observing religious dress in public places. The law was amended later to impose a monetary fine and prison sentence on the offenders. These strictures have been enforced persistently ever since. Nowhere in the entire legislative universe of the Islamic Republic can one identify a law that the government has judged to be of comparable significance.

Nationwide protests in Iran over the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman arrested and widely believed to have been beaten by the country’s infamous morality police over a loosely worn headscarf, have partially subsided, though sporadic outbursts of anger continue to spring up on university campuses and in some neighborhoods in larger cities.

Over the past three weeks, Iran has witnessed episodes unprecedented in their dreadfulness: An elite university in Tehran where students had staged protests came under siege for a half a day, and the government’s minister of science, research, and technology, Mohammad Ali Zolfigol, rushed to the campus to brandish disciplinary action against student activists; security forces have unleashed violence against random people on the streets and beat them with batons; at least 40 journalists have been detained just for doing their jobs; a traumatizing internet blackout has cut people off from their loved ones and the outside world; and more.

Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has been treating the notion of hijab, the Islamic dress code for women, with excessive urgency and as a burning issue with no expiry date. In 1983, the Iranian parliament made wearing hijab officially mandatory and stipulated a sentence of up to 74 lashes for women seen not to be observing religious dress in public places. The law was amended later to impose a monetary fine and prison sentence on the offenders. These strictures have been enforced persistently ever since. Nowhere in the entire legislative universe of the Islamic Republic can one identify a law that the government has judged to be of comparable significance.

There have been junctures in the history of the Islamic Republic when hijab compliance fleetingly ceased to be one of the government’s primary domestic concerns. During the tenure of reformist President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005, it was less common for the government and state-run media to lecture about the imperative of compulsory hijab, and constraints were not as severe, characterized by less intrusive enforcement mechanisms and greater leeway for women to make decisions about their appearance. But even in that period, the compulsory hijab as a dogma wasn’t reversed. The only perk was that young women had found ways to dress in more colorful, stylish fashions within the rubric of what was allowed.

With the election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president in 2021, a novel discourse was pieced together that marked a rare iteration of the government’s approach to the Islamization of society. Although sarcasm-infused rumors had been swirling about candidate Raisi’s prospective plans to erect walls in the sidewalks to segregate male and female pedestrians, even those fears about an ultraconservative cleric primed to wreak havoc on civil liberties and make life infernal for women weren’t enough to encourage disillusioned Iranians to vote for his only centrist rival and prevent his anointment.

In an essentially uncompetitive election that recorded an all-time low turnout of 48.8 percent, when only 26 percent of eligible voters in the capital of Tehran cast their ballots, Raisi secured a trouble-free victory, and power across all elected and unelected bodies was consolidated by the hard-liners. He never publicly disavowed the speculations that he would reinvigorate the relatively dormant morality police vans if elected, and only his daughter Reyhaneh Sadat Raisi said in a TV interview during the campaign season that her father would not press ahead with an agenda of gender segregation and that his vulnerability was being a very kind man.

But it wasn’t long after Raisi’s inauguration that the fears became reality, and just as the Taliban started their nation-building mission in Afghanistan by subduing women, the new president of Iran decided to usher in his mandate as the chief executive with a multipronged campaign of relegating Iranian women’s rights to the 1980s. In those dark years, as most Iranians recollect bitterly, owing to an extreme revolutionary fever, women would be arbitrarily assailed on the streets for some strands of their hair being visible; couples walking together would be approached by vigilantes to explain their relationships; car drivers couldn’t play music on their radios if it could be heard from the outside; and VHS tapes of Indian and American movies had to be smuggled into homes to get around strict censorship targeting entertainment.

With Raisi’s ascent, social media platforms of news agencies affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps began floating calls about the need to discipline women wearing “bad hijab,” and administration officials kicked off a competition over who could make the most inflammatory remarks about hijab.

In May, Zolfigol, the science minister, made surprising remarks about proper university attire in a speech ostensibly meant to commemorate World Communication and Public Relations Day at Alzahra University, saying that “even in developed countries, nobody enters the university campus wearing beach attire.” It wasn’t clear what Zolfigol was complaining about, and many social media users wondered if any female student had ever been seen on the premises of an Iranian university without a headscarf and long, loose-fitting dress, let alone wearing a swimsuit.

Under Raisi, the Initiative for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—a religious entity tasked with promoting what the authorities believe is the ideal Islamic lifestyle and which was predominantly a fringe, marginalized institution during the Rouhani administration—was given a new lease on life and a budget of 1,180 billion rials (about $3.9 million, as of September) for the 2022-23 fiscal year. The initiative, made up of the most reactionary elements of the government, started churning out regulations one after the other on how women in government workspaces and other public places should dress. But it was not only their appearance that was of concern: Female employees were warned against having nonessential conversations with male coworkers about subjects not related to work and, however surreal it may sound, were discouraged from addressing male colleagues using singular pronouns because in Persian, using singular pronouns imparts intimacy.

The authorities of this religious body, assured of the president’s full support—Raisi told them in a meeting that they should be firm in upholding the law and not be coerced by pressure from the “enemies”—embraced innovation, devising new techniques for how to reinforce mandatory hijab and make sure it is applied as rigidly as possible. They recommended that women wearing “poor hijab” should be detected on public transport and shopping centers using surveillance cameras, and then text messages should be sent to them indicating the financial penalty they must pay. Options for social exclusion and denial of public services were also mooted.

In July, Raisi, the ex officio chairman of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution—a powerful multiagency coordination body working under the aegis of the supreme leader to institute large-scale national policies on cultural activity, arts, and education—issued an order communicating to at least 26 executive bodies that the bylaw on “hijab and chastity,” first proposed in 2006, should begin to be fully implemented. This would involve the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance producing round-the-clock publicity on the significance of hijab and the security apparatus mobilizing its resources to beef up patrols, arrests, and fines.

The ordinance, as drafted, was nothing new but was meant to tighten the noose around women by dialing up the dress restrictions while implicating more government bodies in pro-hijab indoctrination. Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first instructed the implementation of the bylaw. For eight years, it was shelved and ignored by President Hassan Rouhani. Raisi mandated its full-scale implementation.

Even in his previous job as the judiciary chief, Raisi was passionate about instigating coercion around compulsory hijab. In August 2019, he lamented the “failure” of government institutions in upholding the laws of hijab, ordering the General Inspection Organization of Iran to submit a report to him on how the different organizations were performing. Jalil Mohebby, a former secretary of the Initiative for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, recently revealed that in 2019, a meeting was convened at Raisi’s judiciary office where some attendees warned that public support for his prospective presidential candidacy might be negatively affected should enhanced hijab restrictions be implemented.

Yet although his enthusiasm for extreme hijab restrictions predated his presidency, the more proximate reason Raisi ultimately embarked on hardening his hijab agenda was to help bolster his wobbly administration, which was suffering a legitimacy crisis, by coalescing the most radical elements of Iranian society around a cause they felt passionate about. He saw agitprop around hijab as a rallying cry that could unite his hard-line supporters. He also wished to deflect attention from soaring inflation, the rising economic costs of U.S. sanctions, the steep devaluation of Iran’s national currency, and his foreign-policy failures by exaggerating publicity on a divisive issue that could generate a cultural gap between the more liberal-minded Iranians who don’t endorse him and his base of conservative loyalists.

But after more than a year of intensified propaganda and reinforced prohibitive measures, punctuated by the viral scenes of violent encounters between the morality police guards and women being shoved, pushed, dragged, insulted, and confronted aggressively, culminating in the heartrending death of Amini, a national reckoning has emerged, resulting in the exact opposite of what Raisi wanted to achieve. Instead of increased hijab compliance in a society that is more submissive and less restive, Iranian women are defiantly removing their headscarves in public and rejecting the entrenched mandate. Even more concerning for Raisi, many religious-minded Iranians are siding with them.

Much to the chagrin of Raisi and his orthodox supporters, excessive investment in hijab rabble-rousing and stiffened regulations have miscarried, demonstrating once more that fundamentalism in any form produces catastrophes. Now, the entire country is in turmoil, and more and more young men and women are growing hostile to the tenets of a religion that was never meant to be promoted through intimidation. What was supposed to be the trump card of the Raisi administration has become his soft underbelly with a situation that has clearly spiraled out of control.

As the distinguished Turkish scholar of Islam Mustafa Akyol wrote in his 2021 book, Why, As a Muslim, I Defend Liberty, “when you shove religion down people’s throats, those people may end up detesting religion, which is exactly what is happening today in many corners of the Muslim world.”

“[B]y denying people their natural right to liberty, oppressive Islamic regimes and movements are triggering the greatest wave of apostasy the Islamic civilization has ever seen.”

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist and Asia Times correspondent and a former Chevening scholarship recipient. He is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He was a finalist for two Kurt Schork Awards in international journalism in 2020 and 2021, and his writings have appeared on the National InterestopenDemocracyResponsible StatecraftMiddle East Eye, and the New Arab. Twitter: @KZiabari

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