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Iranian moral order – The headscarf – an Iranian political issue – News


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How women dress is part of the political agenda in Iran. That was the case before.

The headscarf is an important article of clothing in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Women are required to cover their hair in public. Accidentally slipping the headscarf can result in sanctions – in the case of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, it may have been the cause of her death.

Trigger for the current protests in Iran


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The protests in Iran stem from the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. The young Kurd died in hospital in mid-September after being arrested by the vice squad in Tehran because of her “un-Islamic” outfit. She did not wear her headscarf according to the rules.

It is unclear what exactly happened to Amini after her arrest. On social media, critics accused the vice squad of using violence. However, the police rejected these allegations and claimed that the 22-year-old had died of a heart attack.

This was not always the case: after the Shahs, the Persian rulers, had become increasingly interested in the European way of life in the 19th century, they definitely took a pro-Western course for Iran from the 1920s.

Westernization executed on the female body

The ex-officer Reza Shah Pahlavi modernized the administration and the economy. Old and rigid social rules were thrown overboard. Women no longer had to wear a veil. The veil was even banned from one day to the next on May 29, 1936.

Reza Shah Pahlavi saw Western clothing as a symbol of modernization. The ban on veils was a means of gaining more respect from Europeans. At the same time, the Europeanization of Turkey under Kemal Atatürk served as an inspiration.

A possibly transfigured look back

In this way, Iranian women became the object of forced modernization – with far-reaching consequences. The state ban brought a privileged class into the modern age, while women in other classes of society were forced into a strange lifestyle.

Pictures of the Shah family with women in fashionable clothes, blow-dried hairstyles or bathing suits are today regarded as proof of the emancipation achieved at that time. In fact, this was not true for the entire population: in the Shah era, the majority of Iranian women could not read and write. Many reforms were unsuccessful.

When the American and British secret services carried out a coup in the 1950s and the then Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was increasingly seen as a puppet of the West, outrage grew steadily. On January 16, 1979, the Shah was overthrown. The Shiite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini took power.

New political program

With the Islamic Revolution, strict dress codes came into force. Ayatollah Khomeini demanded that women wear a hijab a few days after taking power.

Women demonstrate with veils on the street.

Legend:

Iranian women on the street during demonstrations in 1979.

Getty Images/Christine Spengler/Sygma

At the time, the requirement to cover up did not seem to impede female advancement – possibly even indirectly favoring it. More girls were going to school, and by the late 1990s, most first-year students were women. The number of children per woman fell so sharply that Iran received a UN award. Today the birth rate is lower than in France.

Ideology vs Reality

For the Iranian leadership, the headscarf is still important today. Also precisely because Iran has become more and more secularized. The following applies: women without a headscarf in public risk arrest, beatings, imprisonment or a fine. The law applies to girls from the age of nine.

In reality, many see the rules as rather loose and wear their headscarves loosely. A majority of women also reject compulsory headscarves. This emerged in 2018 from the results of surveys commissioned by the Iranian authorities.

However, religious politicians are trying to enforce the laws more strictly. The suppression of the current protests shows that the leadership is sticking to the headscarf. And so the clothing of Iranian women remains a political issue.

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