A friend of mine asked of some details of Hijab story in Iran. This post was developed as an answer to that question.
The second Pahlavi (the famous Shah you have heard of, who was a strong ally of US and suffered the Islamic Revolution) made a better choice: step by step cultural changes, through showing a new modern model of life which included many symbols of American Dream. Cinema and other propaganda tools helped that thing happen quicker. It was an effective strategy, and during a period of about 2 decades, majority of people either gave up on strict traditions or at least got used to a new model of life which tolerated those who did not follow strict Islamic codes. It doesn’t mean, however, that traditionalists and fanatics were rooted out: they did exist, but enjoyed almost no power. It is still kind of a surprise to me to see how many un-veiled women participated in those pre-revolution demonstrations against Shah.
After the Islamic revolution overthrew Shah Regime, a wave of Islamization raged the country. A Revolution, even the Iranian Revolution which succeeded with not so much slaughter and murder, is a chaos in the first place: Revolution tries to restructure the whole social order, and therefore causes a transient situation to happen in which time there might be a temporary dominant order shaped by revolutionary caused or else. Whatever the origins of that revolution were, during the final stages of Shah Regime and early stages of post-revolution acts, it turned into an Islamic one. The masses expected Islam to bring a full-scale justice to their society, and Islamic Values happened to play the dominant role in that period of time.
But I do strongly believe that the same way first Pahlavi failed to force people to give up on Islamic Values, Islamic Regime also failed to convince people to accept strict Islamic Values. With regards to those un-veiled women who demonstrated against Shah, the revolution didn’t convince them to embrace Islamic Codes; it just forced them to do so. And in the case of social changes, force just makes a petty transient change, if any.
When Saddam attacked Iran, officials had to urge people to go to fronts (you know, ‘human waves’ were the most effective weapon Iran had against Iraq’s modern army), and deploying religious intentions was the best way to do so: some Islamic values such as martyrdom and sacrifice were exalted. What supplemented this official agenda was the fact that Iranians were not ready to treat Saddam’s army the same way the French treated Germans. Patriotism and Islamization got correlated. Then, a second wave of Islamization happened to intensify the first (originally revolutionary) wave.
End of that war and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini (the very charismatic leader of revolution) coincided. Hashemi Rafsanjani became the president and a wave of Liberalization happened in the name of Reconstruction. Take a look at my other weblog post: “Post-war presidents of Iran”. 8 years of liberalization, followed by 8 years of political reformism, and then the surprising election of Ahmadinejad happened to influence all equations.
In that 16-years-period of Liberalization and Political Reformism, some new freedoms were awarded to people. Those freedoms were more culturally than politically, and Hijab turned into a symbol of change. Some people, especially some youth, tried not to obey Strict Hijab Codes: long coats women sometimes wear in Iran instead of Chador got smaller and smaller, tighter and tighter, and some new colors replaced the black and dark colors which traditional and religious women usually prefer to use. Those who do not wear a complete Hijab are called Bad-Hijab.
But, as pointed above, it didn’t mean that traditionalists and fanatics didn’t have any share of Iranian society. Some wild guesses (from the statistics obtained in different elections) might suggest that roughly 10% of people are loyal to traditional and strict values. And their representatives and political parties dedicated to fanatics enjoy a much bigger share of political power in Iran. Those liberal-minded officials, who preferred a more liberal society, had to sometimes take some actions to satisfy these fanatic groups. As the ‘fashion’ & ‘leaving Hijab aside’ turned into symbols of cultural change (especially within youth), seasonal Hijab crackdowns (forcing people, especially girls, to follow stricter codes) turned into something usual. These crackdowns are:
(1) Seasonal: they happen in spring and summer, when girls want to adjust their clothing to hot weather!
(2) Limited to big cities.
(3) Not so harsh: such actions usually include just oral instruction, and in some cases temporary detentions. When somebody is arrested, a close kin (father, etc.) should go to police station and the person as well as that kin should sign a paper which says they would never violate regulations anymore.
(4) Random: these crackdowns are not continuous and do not cover all parts of the city in the same time. Police officers usually choose few locations to run the action, for example some crowded squares or malls, randomly choose some bad-Hijab people and do it.
In some extreme cases, if the arrested person violently resists officers or is too-bad-Hijab, they could be introduced to courts. But the spokesman of Iran’s Judiciary System publicly announced that there are no laws requiring any punishment for bad-Hijab people who are not too-bad-dressed.
Ahmadinejad unexpectedly assumed about two years ago. Though masses generally voted in his favor seeking financial benefits and cutting the perceived corrupt hands which supposedly exploit country’s resources, his election helped fanatics get the upper hand (albeit not the final say). The cultural consequences of his election to some extent appeared in web-filtering, cinema and dailies’ censorship and a harder Hijab Crackdown. But new round of crackdowns was just a bit harder than previous experiences, not so much. I saw some clips published on web about a woman with blood all over her face who was injured by some police officers. Yes, that is true, but I think it was not done deliberately.
Generally, I think that officials are well aware that in current situation, with regards to foreign pressures as well as internal problems (including high rate of unemployment and inflation, which grew worse during past years despite the highest oil revenues of whole history), any harsh pressing in this case might cause full scale chaos, which might threaten the very existence of Islamic Republic regime.
I invite you to visit this report... such things are still ongoing behind (and even sometimes in front of) the scene.
“The children of the revolution: Young Iranians are pushing for change”