Iran: To veil or not to veil

During a two-week visit to Iran, I witnessed women of all ages walking freely on the streets without the hijab. But, what we’re not told, is that they have been doing so for years.

The explosion of protests in Iran that began in September were not about the Islamic Republic’s “hijab law” specifically, but about the abuses and excesses of the so-called morality police – the Gasht-e-Ershad (also known simply as Ershad, or in English, the ‘guidance patrol’) – against regular Iranian women who were considered to be immodestly garbed.

Public disgruntlement was triggered by the widely-publicized death of Mahsa Amini, who was apprehended by the Ershad and died while in their custody.

Although subsequent video footage released by Iranian police authorities showed that Amini had collapsed herself – likely due to her personal health history, as her official autopsy indicates, and not from alleged “beatings” – Iranians argued that the stress of it all may have triggered that collapse.

In the weeks ahead, protests morphed into riots, and people were killed, both civilians and security forces. Whether the two sides shot at each other, or other, external provocateurs were at play, is not the subject of this commentary.

The question is more where these recent events will take Iran, and whether public sentiment on the hijab will be addressed by the country’s governing bodies – and how.

Iran’s very diffused decision-making centers

Iran is by no means the ‘caricature dictatorship’ often portrayed in western mainstream media. While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the final authority on strategic matters, it is a privilege he rarely exercises to counter domestic critics.

As opposed as he was to Iranian nuclear talks with western powers, Khamenei fully permitted the government of former President Hassan Rouhani to proceed with its negotiation agenda, in its desire to normalize economic relations and end Iran’s then-isolation.

There is probably no figure in Iran who has gone on the record as vehemently as Khamenei, warning that the west is never, ever to be trusted, and that Iran’s greatest power lies in its economic self-sufficiency and complete independence from western-dominated global networks.

And yet Khamenei sat back and allowed the Rouhani administration to pursue a policy that completely contradicted his deepest national convictions.

The Supreme Leader’s actions, however, speak to the very real diffusion inherent in Iranian decision-making processes today. There is no single authority in the state. Decisions are either made collaboratively or in heated and often very public disputes that play out in the Iranian media, in parliamentary debates, or behind closed doors.

In essence, Iran has three main power centers today: First, the Supreme Leader and his various state revolutionary organs that include the army, the police force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the millions-strong volunteer Basij forces.

Second, Iran’s government and its state institutions that include the elected president, his cabinet, the country’s ministries, and parliament.

And third, the hawza (seminary) of Qom, Iran’s religious center, which consists of thousands of Shia scholars, authorities, and influencers who impact the interpretation of religion, actions, and behaviors for the Islamic Republic.

All three power centers impact state policy in varying ways, and their fortunes have all ebbed and flowed at different times. Within each of these centers exists a vast network of supporters, institutions, media, economic interests, and influential personalities. They, as in other democratic societies, vie for their perspectives to be taken into account and put into action.

To imagine for a second that a single person or decision-making body can issue a directive on an issue as complex and symbolic as the hijab, is to be absolutely clueless about the intricacy, contradictions, and diversity within the Islamic Republic’s body politic.

A view from the ground

During a two-week visit to Tehran in late November, I noticed significant differences on the ground than in my many previous visits, which stopped in January 2020 due to Covid travel restrictions.

During my last visit to the Iranian capital in 2020, one would occasionally see Iranian women sitting without their hijabs in restaurants. Today, however, the ladies were walking on streets, in malls, at the airport, in traditional bazaars, universities and parks, both uptown and downtown, without the customary head-covering.

Here are some random photos taken by myself at different locations in the city:

What is of utmost importance in the current heated discourse on the Iranian hijab is that this ‘uncovering’ trend did not start in September with the protests. This critical detail goes entirely unmentioned in the western media narrative.

Many Iranian women – in the intervening three years since my last visit – had dropped the headscarf, and the scenes in my photos above have been the norm for years. Did the pandemic help relax the social norms during these years? Nobody I asked had a clear answer. “It just became normal,” was a common refrain.

Today, you can see Iranian ladies – young and old – without a hijab, with a headscarf, and with the more traditional floor-length chador walking together on the same streets; everybody doing their own thing and minding their own business.

It is a fascinating development, because by law in Iran, hijab is mandatory. And yet nobody forcibly implements this law until the Ershad pops back onto the scene.

This is important, because the Ershad is not always there, at all times. While they have been a functioning body since 2006, Iranian authorities appear to only mobilize them at specific intervals: perhaps Qom is getting restless over morality issues, or conservatives are vying for influence over reformists, or there are geopolitical tensions on the country’s borders.

The point is that the Ershad has never been a constant on the streets of Iran, but usually a result of something happening politically somewhere in the country.

Authorities gather to discuss the hijab

Nonetheless, three months of protests and riots later, the issue of the hijab appears to be coming to a head among the Islamic Republic’s competing power centers.

In my personal experience, Iran’s security branches like the IRGC – which operate under Khamenei’s authority – are the least belligerent on the hijab issue. They are focused on foreign infiltration, sabotage, anti-terror operations, and warfare, not on the nitty-gritty of daily life and behaviors.

The hijab is a ‘symbol’ of the Islamic Republic, and symbols – as we have seen in countless hybrid wars conducted in West Asia and beyond – are the first and easiest targets for external provocateurs.

Whether it is changing the colors of the national flag to symbolize opposition, or crafting ditties to replace the national anthem, or encouraging women to whip off their headscarves and videotape it – these are the low-hanging fruit of hybrid warfare.

In a January 2018 interview by a private Iranian publication that has a closed distribution and whose readers are specifically security officials and ‘principalists,’ I was asked about the use of these tools in Syria and Iran. My response, with some length-related edits, is below:

“Symbolic slogans, banners and props are a staple of western-styled ‘color revolutions.’ Iran saw the full impact of these tools in the ‘Green’ movement during the 2009 elections. The use of visual tools (a picture is worth a thousand words) to sum up a theme or aspiration that is instantly understandable to a wide audience – this is basic marketing. People do this in elections all the time, but now these concepts are being effectively utilized in information warfare at a geopolitical level.

The use of the green colonial-era flag in Syria was an easy way to quickly draw a larger number of the Syrian population into the ‘opposition’ tent. Basically anyone who had a grievance with the government – whether political, economic, social, religious – was urged to identify with the protest movement under the banner of this new flag. Syrian activists began to mobilize masses by ‘naming’ Friday protests, using language that sought to craft the opposition’s direction and to slowly Islamize it.

Slogans and props are easy propaganda tricks to employ to draw ‘uncommitted’ members of the population into embracing an anti-government position. Identity tools are an essential component of regime-change operations. You have to delegitimize the existing national symbols in order to craft new ones.

In Iran, the image of the young woman without her hijab swiftly became one of the symbols of the protests on social media. Ironically, the hijab could potentially be viewed as an ‘identity prop’ for the 1979 Islamic Revolution – an easily identifiable symbol which immediately identified a distinct political or religious outlook. As a result, in foreign-backed propaganda assaults on Iran, the hijab will almost always be a target to delegitimize or mock.” (Emphasis mine)

The interview was published alongside a photo of me without a hijab. A few weeks later, I received a message from a top Iranian analyst who is reportedly closely affiliated with the IRGC’s Quds Force. He sent a screenshot of my comments on the hijab, and asked if I had written this. To my surprise, he told me that he fully agreed with my assessment.

On another occasion, Iranian IRGC-backed publication Javan requested an interview along with a translation of one of my Syria articles for a special-issue magazine on the regional Axis of Resistance. Again, they published a photo of myself without the hijab.

Hijab and the state

Simply put, the hijab isn’t a priority issue for Iran’s security sector. They have more important fish to fry. But it is a vital subject for the theologians inside and outside Qom.

And perhaps also for the millions of Iranian women who choose to don it, and don’t want to be bullied out of it, as were their grandmothers in 1936 when then-monarch Reza Shah Pahlavi outlawed the traditional Islamic head covering.

“With the ban on hijab, many women stayed inside their homes for years or left home only in the dark or hidden inside carriages to avoid confrontation with the police who would if necessary use force to unveil them. Even older Christian and Jewish women found the ban on headscarves hard to comply with,” writes Maryam Sinaee – ironically, for Saudi-backed publication Iran International, which runs 24/7 propaganda for Iranian oppositionists nowadays.

These matters aside, Iran’s security leaders have an unusually strong case to put to the clergy today: ‘The hijab, which we respect, has entered the national security realm. Foreign-backed agendas have weaponized the hijab to promote regime-change operations.’ This is not a position the clergy can argue given recent events.

It is probably why Iranian authorities are reportedly considering a host of options to take the threat off the table, including, potentially, the suspension or dissolution of the Ershad, to be replaced by a general program to teach and advise about Islamic modesty across the country, for both men and women.

The Ershad – established under the administration of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – are off the streets now, and have been for many weeks. And the three main Iranian centers of authority are deep in conversation about how to calm residual tensions and address this social grievance among segments of the population.

Interestingly, this development somewhat mirrors that of arch-rival Saudi Arabia across the Persian Gulf, where the “mutawa,” or Saudi religious police, were stripped of their once-unchecked powers and privileges in 2016 by royal decree. Since then, it has become more common to see women publically unveiled and not wearing the traditional black abaya over their regular clothes, despite there never having been a Saudi written law mandating it.

Qom – and many others – will never agree to retract the hijab law. After all, its over-zealous enforcement by the few was what the argument was originally about. Like many laws without teeth that remain on the books of countries everywhere, Iran’s hijab law may experience a similar fate.

But while we can expect a gentler Iranian hand in regard to the hijab, it will be also be accompanied by a merciless de-fanging of those who sought to use this symbol of piety to undermine the state.

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