Washington Post: Struggle over what to wear in Iran
Struggle over what to wear in Iran
By Jason Rezaian
July 21, 2012
ATTA KENARE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES - An Iranian woman adjusts headscarves on mannequins at the Islamic fashion exhibit in central Tehran on March 1, 2012. The government’s offensive this year has been marked by the stationing of mixed-gender teams of morality police in Tehran’s main squares.
But this year, the stakes are unusually high. As Iranian leaders attempt to deflect the public’s attention away from economic woes spurred by crushing foreign sanctions, they risk alienating large segments of a society that is already deeply divided.
The government’s offensive this year has been marked by the stationing of mixed-gender teams of morality police in Tehran’s main squares.
Already this summer, 53 coffee shops and 87 restaurants have been closed in Tehran for serving customers with improper hijab or for other gender-related offenses, such as permitting women to smoke hookah pipes. Concerts have been abruptly canceled because of inappropriate dress and too much contact between male and female fans. Approximately 80 stands at an international food fair were closed last month because the women working at them were either breaking hijab rules or wearing too much makeup.
Those arrested face up to two months in prison, or could even be lashed for their crimes. Those penalties have been on the books for years, but were rarely enforced in the past.
Such aggressive enforcement and stiff penalties have spawned resentment.
“I felt disrespected and insulted,” said 30-year-old Sahar, who was arrested for wearing sleeves that only went to her forearms, “I’m a grown woman. I can decide what I can wear. I can make these decisions myself.”
But authorities have made the case this year that un-Islamic dress is a matter of national security, and a symptom of long-term Western meddling in Iranian affairs. Officials now routinely cite the improper wearing of hijab as the cause for a range of social maladies, from women who marry later in life to those who go into prostitution. The root problem is often blamed on “foreign agents.”
Tehran police chief Ahmad- Reza Radan this month called support for improper hijab “part of the enemy’s soft war against us.”
In Iran and other Islamic countries, hijab, which means ‘cover’ in Arabic, has come to define a type of dress code for women, the main priority of which is to obscure signs of femininity. In Iran the most important element has always been covering women’s hair and secondarily, the shape of women’s bodies. Traditionally, covering of the head, arms, and legs has been strictly enforced, and a long jacket called a manteau, accompanied by a scarf, has been the accepted minimum.
Over the years, however, what passes as hijab has changed and now a wide range of styles can be seen in any Iranian city — from the black, all-encompassing chador to brightly colored headscarves that barely stay in place.
Manteau and headscarf shops are some of the most successful retailers in Tehran, as women hope to keep up with new trends. Skinny jeans and flat shoes are in this year. But on the streets of Tehran that would be difficult to notice, because long, loose-fitting manteaus are also all the rage.
Unlike many of Iran’s leaders, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has since 2010 openly promoted greater tolerance, saying that in the vast majority of cases, improper hijab is not a crime. On Monday, Ahmadinejad said that authorities “instead of closing cinemas and restaurants must give people the right to choose. If people are given choices they will definitely choose Iranian culture and beliefs.”
The president’s position has led a growing list of political rivals to attack his stanceas anti-revolutionary and pro-Western. Ali Mottahari, a prominent lawmaker and possible candidate to replace Ahmadinejad in 2013, accused the president in May of promoting “sexual intrigue.”
“We must either accept Western perspectives or Islamic ones and there is no way in between,” he said.
Such arguments may have a certain appeal at a time when Iran is facing the strain of sanctions imposed by the United States and other foreign powers, which are aimed at forcing Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program.
“Harking back to radical roots is a great comforter and proven survival strategy when positions on other more substantial issues are less clear cut,” said Rouzbeh Parsi, a research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, where he specializes in Iran.
But the practice also risks spurring a backlash. Those arrested say they feel a growing sense of alienation in their own country.
Mahnaz and Mahin, sisters who are 28 and 29 years old, respectively, were recently arrested because Mahin was wearing a jacket that female morality police officers deemed too short.
“They were so rude to us,” said Mahnaz, who, like others, declined to allow her last name to be used. “They told us, ‘If being arrested for having bad hijab bothers you, you should leave. This is an Islamic country and we don’t want Western-looking people here.’”
Finding urban Iranians who actually support the program to enforce hijab is increasingly difficult. Even many women who dress conservatively find the patrols distasteful.
“Forcing people to dress a certain way is useless and won’t get the results that they want,” said Nafiseh, a 50-year-old mother of three who wears the chador, a tent-like garment that hides the female form. “I’m really against it, because these people aren’t really breaking Islamic rules.”
She said she often intervenes in arrests knowing that, because of her own strict adherence to the dress code, she is unlikely to be punished.
Mostafa, a 46-year-old marketing consultant, described how his 16-year-old daughter was arrested in a crowded shopping mall. “They coaxed her into the police van and told her they just wanted to talk to her,” he explained. “Once she was in the van the whole atmosphere changed and they said things that made her cry.”
After a brief time in custody, his daughter, Banafshe, was released. “Do you know what her response was to the whole episode?” he asked. “She said, ‘Dad, as soon as I finish high school I’m leaving this country forever.’”