The Islamic Republic’s failed war on women

The summer is almost here and Iranians across the country are trying to find ways to escape the heat. But in Tehran, the coming of summer also signifies the beginning of something else: Police offensives against “immodestly dressed” women. According to greater Tehran police chief Brig. Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, the Iranian capital’s police force is on the verge of a new offensive they are labelling the “Plan to confront hooligans, perverts, and immodestly dressed individuals.”

Of course, “tough on crime” police operations are not unique to Iran. What makes the current offensive unique is the climate of fear it creates in major urban areas touching on every social group, particularly women. Sajedinia, insists that these operations take place every year due to the “legitimate popular demand” of Tehran’s residents. Describing how the offensive would unfold, Sajedinia explained that:

“Confronting immodest dress happens on two fronts, [targeting] illegal producers and importers [on one hand] and consumers [on the other], such that with the beginning of this plan all of the centres of production and distribution of [immodest] clothing in Tehran will be identified, the necessary warnings will be given to them, and if they do not heed our warnings they will be shuttered. The other aspect of this plan includes placing moral security patrol vehicles around [public] squares, shopping centres, streets, and motorcycle security units on Tehran’s highways” to confront immodestly dressed individuals.

Enforcing what the Islamic Republic considers modest Islamic dress, or “hijab”, on all Iranian women has been an uphill battle for the regime. Initially imposed in government offices by Iran’s first supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the hijab gradually became mandatory for all women outside their homes by the early 1980s as it was enforced by a combination of harsh “morality police”, state laws, and social pressure. The backlash against the mandatory hijab however began in the same year as the revolution, with thousands of men and women marching on International Women’s’ Day in 1979 to show their opposition.

While resistance to the mandatory hijab has been more low key in recent years, it has nonetheless prevented it from becoming an accepted social norm amongst large swaths of the population. A number of other factors have formed an obstacle to the mandatory hijab. For example, Iran’s high birth rate in the 1980s has led to a population explosion, making the Iranian population relatively young, restless, and difficult to control – especially in major urban areas such as Tehran. Moreover, there is no absolute consensus on the issue within Shiite jurisprudence. Ayatollah Mamoud Taleghani, a high ranking Shiite clergyman, declared the hijab non-mandatory during the revolution.

More recently, even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who hails from the socially conservative Principalist faction, spoke out against the offensives targeting young people’s lifestyle choices, saying “we should not bother youths so much”. Such statements by the second highest ranking political official in Iran is a tacit admission of the regime’s impotence in stopping many women from flouting its social codes. The regime’s insistence on a strict dress code is expensive, illogical, and ultimately, ineffective.

And so, as another summer comes and goes, more women will be harassed, beaten, and arrested by Iranian security forces for the way their fashion choices. It appears that social, political, and economic restrictions on women, including the mandatory hijab, are a deeply encoded part of the Islamic Republic’s DNA, without which the entire ideological facade of the regime would begin to crumble.