Some Iranian women taking off hijabs as hardliners push back on dress code

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A few daring women in Iran’s capital have been taking off their headscarves in public, risking arrest and drawing the ire of hardliners.

The simple act of walking has become a display of defiance for one young Iranian woman who often moves in Tehran’s streets without a hijab.

With every step, she risks harassment or even arrest by Iran’s morality police, whose job is to enforce the strict dress code imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Women spend an afternoon around the Persian Gulf Martyrs’ Lake in Tehran
Women spend an afternoon around the Persian Gulf Martyrs’ Lake in Tehran (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

“I have to confess it is really, really scary,” the 30-year-old fire safety consultant said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

But she is also hopeful, saying she believes the authorities find it increasingly difficult to suppress protests as more women join in.

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“They are running after us, but cannot catch us,” she said.

“This is why we believe change is going to be made.”

The hijab debate has further polarised Iranians at a time when the country is buckling under unprecedented US sanctions imposed since the Trump administration pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers last year.

Head-to-toe veiled Iranian woman arrive to attend a ceremony in support of the observance of the Islamic dress code for women, in Tehran
Iranian women veiled from head to toe in Tehran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

It is unclear to what extent the government can enforce hijab compliance amid an economic malaise, including a currency collapse and rising housing prices.

There is anecdotal evidence that more women are pushing back against the dress code, trying to redefine red lines as they test the response of the ruling Shiite Muslim clergy and their security agencies.

An Associated Press reporter spotted about two dozen women in the streets without a hijab over the course of nine days, mainly in well-to-do areas of Tehran – a shopping centre, a lakeside park, a hotel lobby.

Many other women, while stopping short of outright defiance, opted for loosely draped colourful scarves that show as much hair as they cover.

Even in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, frequented by many traditional women, most female shoppers wore these casual hijabs.

Youngsters outside a shopping centre in northern Tehran
Youngsters outside a shopping centre in northern Tehran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Still, a sizeable minority of women were covered head-to-toe in black robes and tightly pulled headscarves, the so-called chador.

The struggle against compulsory headscarves first made headlines in December 2017 when a woman climbed on a utility box in Tehran’s Revolution Street, waving her hijab on a stick.

More than three dozen protesters have been detained since, including nine who are currently in detention, said Masih Alinejad, an Iranian activist who now lives in New York.

Despite attempts to silence protesters, public debate has intensified, amplified by social media.

Last month, a widely watched online video showed a security agent grab an unveiled teenage girl and violently push her into the back of a police car, prompting widespread criticism.

Women take a picture while spending an afternoon around the Persian Gulf Martyrs’ Lake in Tehran
Women take a picture at the Persian Gulf Martyrs’ Lake in Tehran (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

President Hassan Rouhani and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have supported a softer attitude towards women who do not comply with the official dress code.

However, hardliners opposed to such easing have become more influential as the nuclear deal is faltering.

They have called for harsh punishment, even lashes, arguing that allowing women to show their hair leads to moral decay and the disintegration of families.

The judiciary recently urged Iranians to inform on women without hijabs by sending photos and videos to designated social media accounts.

Veiled Iranian women attend a ceremony in support of the observance of the Islamic dress code for women, in Tehran
Veiled Iranian women attend a ceremony in support of the observance of the Islamic dress code for women in Tehran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

“The more women dress in an openly sexual way, the less we’ll have social peace, while facing a higher crime rate,” Minoo Aslani, head of the women’s branch of the paramilitary Basij group, told a rally last week.

Another gathering was attended by several thousand women in chadors.

One held up a sign reading: “The voluntary hijab is a plot by the enemy.”

Reformist politician Parvaneh Salahshouri said coercion does not work.

“What we see is that the morality police have been a failure,” said Ms Salahshouri, who wears a headscarf out of religious belief.

Changing hijab rules through legislation is unlikely because of the constraints on parliament, she said.

Reformist Iranian politician Parvaneh Salahshouri
Reformist Iranian politician Parvaneh Salahshouri (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Instead, women should engage in non-violent civil disobedience, Salahshouri said.

She cautioned that it is a slow, difficult road, but that “Iranian women have not given up their efforts”.

The hijab controversy goes back to the mid-1930s when police forced women to take off their hijabs, part of a Westernisation policy by then-shah Reza Pahlavi.

Under his son and successor, women could choose.

Western apparel was common among the elite.

A 2018 survey by a parliament research centre indicates that most women wear a casual hijab and only 13% opt for a chador.

Attitudes have changed.

In 1980, two-thirds believed women should wear hijabs.

Today, fewer than 45% approve of government intervention in the issue, the research said.

Iran has seen waves of anti-government protests, including an outcry after a 2009 election many contended was stolen by hardliners.

A head-to-toe veiled woman walks in the courtyard of the shrine of Saint Saleh in northern Tehran
A head-to-toe veiled woman walks in the courtyard of the shrine of St Saleh in northern Tehran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Those with economic grievances frequently protest.

Alinejad argued the campaign against forced hijabs carries symbolic weight, saying that mandatory headscarves were “the symbol that the Iranian government used to take the whole society hostage”.

In recent years, she has posted videos and photos of activists, including women filming themselves as they walk in the streets without a headscarf.

Ms Alinejad said she receives more than 20 images a day, but posts only some.

The activists in Iran take risks.

In March, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has represented female protesters, was sentenced to 38-and-a-half years in prison, of which she must serve 12, according to her husband.

In April, activists Yasaman Aryani, her mother Monireh Arabshahi and Mojgan Keshavarz were arrested after posting a video showing them without headscarves in the Tehran metro.

In the video, they distributed flowers to female passengers and spoke of a day when women have the freedom to choose.

Amnesty International said Iranian authorities have used incommunicado detentions, prolonged solitary confinement and threats against family members to coerce detained activists to retract their opposition to forced veiling in video-taped “confessions”.

The group said it had detected such a pattern in six cases since April.

Two Iranian women take a selfie outside a shopping centre in northern Tehran
Iranian women take a selfie outside a shopping centre in northern Tehran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Some activists manoeuvre carefully.

The 30-year-old fire safety consultant said she tries to avoid policemen when she walks the streets without a hijab.

She said she grudgingly complies with the dress code when she delivers lectures or sings in a mixed choir – activities she would otherwise be barred from.

At the high-end Palladium Mall in northern Tehran, several shoppers casually ignored a sign reminding customers that the hijab is mandatory.

One woman only pulled up her scarf, which was draped around her shoulders, when she stepped into a lift and found herself next to a security guard.

Nearby, 20-year-old Paniz Masoumi sat on the stone steps of a plaza.

She had dyed some of her hair blue, but kept it hidden under a loose scarf.

Masoumi said police recently impounded her car for two weeks, fining her amid claims that a traffic camera snapped her with a below-standard hijab.

If hijabs were voluntary, she would throw hers off, Masoumi said.

But for now “I am not looking for trouble”, she added.

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