Iran's onerous hijab law for women is now the subject of an election campaign

Iranian officials have insisted for decades that the law requiring women to cover their hair and dress modestly was sacrosanct and not even worth discussing. They dismissed the struggle of women defying the law as a symptom of Western interference.

Now, as Iran holds presidential elections this week, the issue of compulsory hijab, as the head covering is known, has become a hot topic in the election campaign. And all six men running, five of them conservatives, have sought to distance themselves from law enforcement methods, which include violence, arrests and fines.

“Elections aside, politics aside, under no circumstances should we treat Iranian women with such cruelty,” Mustafa Pourmohammadi, a conservative and religious presidential candidate with senior intelligence roles, said at a roundtable on state television last week. last week. He also said government officials should be punished for the hijab law because it was their duty to educate women about why they should wear the hijab, not force it violently.

The hijab has long been a symbol of religious identity but has also been a political tool in Iran. And women have resisted the law, in different ways, since it came into force after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The law is unlikely to be overturned, and it is unclear whether a new president could tone down its enforcement. Various administrations have taken looser or stricter approaches to the hijab. Ebrahim Raisi, the president whose death in a helicopter crash in May triggered an emergency election, had imposed some of the harshest crackdowns on women.

However, some women’s rights activists and analysts in Iran say that bringing the issue to the table during the elections is an achievement in itself. It shows that the civil disobedience movement “Women, Life, Freedom,” which began nearly two years ago, has become too big to ignore.

Women and girls walk the streets, eat in restaurants, go to work and travel on public transport wearing dresses, crop tops and skirts and leaving their hair uncovered. In doing so they run great risks, as the morality police hide on street corners to arrest women who defy the rules.

Fatemeh Hassani, 42, a sociologist from Tehran, said in a telephone interview that the fact that the hijab and moral policing have become an election issue shows that women, through their determination and resistance, have been “effective in 'influence the country's internal policies and in forcing the government to recognize their demands for greater rights.'

Women make up about half of Iran's 61 million eligible voters. Although voter apathy is high among government critics, opposition to the hijab law and morality policing is no longer limited to them. It has transcended gender, religious and class lines, and now some of the loudest complaints come from religious and conservative people, the backbone of the government's voters.

During a live televised debate Friday on social issues, women and the hijab dominated the four-hour event. The issue has also emerged in campaign videos that appear to target female voters and rallies in cities across the country.

In Isfahan, video of a rally for a candidate, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, showed an 18-year-old girl, with long black hair falling to her shoulders, taking the microphone. She said she represents the generation of young people and first-time voters, the generation that champions her demands, and asked: “Do you have the power to confront the morality police, the hijab monitors and the security forces autonomous?”

Dr. Pezeshkian is the only candidate for the reformist faction, which favors greater social openness and engagement with the West. He has been the strongest voice against mandatory hijab and morality policing, and the only candidate to clearly state that he opposes telling anyone how to dress.

“We will not be able to force women to wear the hijab,” she said during the debate on Friday. “Will arrests, clashes and shameful behavior solve this problem?”

Not all female voters are convinced that change is coming. Despite the candidates' convictions, morality police continue to patrol the streets around Tehran and other major cities daily with police vans and cars. Sometimes they stop the women and give them a verbal warning, sometimes they arrest them. Several videos on social media showed women being beaten and dragged into vans.

“I don't believe it. The president has no authority on this issue because it is a red line for the Islamic Republic,” Sephideh, a 32-year-old teacher from Tehran, said in a telephone interview, asking that her last name not be published to avoid possible retaliation “But in the previous elections, the hijab issue was abandoned, and now everyone is talking about it,” she added, concluding that the women's struggle “will win.”

Iranian women who do not believe in the use of the hijab have been fighting the law since it existed, after the Islamic revolution of 1979. Then, the clerics who overthrew the monarchy imposed Islamic sharia laws on all aspects of social life, from women's clothing to gender mixing and alcohol consumption.

The Women, Life, Freedom movement was born in 2022 after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in the custody of the morality police, who had arrested her on charges of violating the hijab law. Outraged women and girls carried out nationwide protests, burning their headscarves, dancing in the streets and chanting for women's freedom. The revolt spread to its full extent, with demands for an end to clerical rule. The government eventually cracked down on the protests with violence.

In December, Iran announced that it had abolished the morality police, only to put them back on the streets in April after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, said that observing the hijab law was a moral obligation and political.

Iran's parliament has been working on legislation that would impose punitive damages on women who disobey rules, including denying them social services, imposing travel bans and allowing the judiciary to withdraw funds from their bank accounts.

Mr Pourmohammadi, the religious candidate, said during a debate that if elected, he would repeal the legislation. General Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the leading conservative candidate and current speaker of Parliament, said in the debate that the legislation still needs work and that “nothing can be achieved with violence, tension and without respect – all this is condemned . “

In recent months, facial recognition software, both in traffic surveillance cameras and drones, has been used to identify hijab scofflaws, who were then sent a summons to appear in court, according to three women interviewed who had received such messages and an Amnesty report. International.

Nahid, 62, a Tehran resident who did not want her last name published for fear of retaliation, said that when she was summoned the judge showed her a photograph of herself near a shopping mall, her blond hair uncovered, and that she was fined.

Another woman, Minoo, 52, who wears a hijab, said in an interview that her car had been confiscated for two weeks because traffic cameras had caught her 20-year-old daughter driving without wearing one. She said the police also made her pay for parking the seized car.

The implementation of the law has brought widespread condemnation abroad from right-wing groups and Western countries.

In October, a teenager collapsed on the subway on her way to school after being told of an argument with a hijab-wearing police officer, and died in hospital.

Fahimeh, a 41-year-old fashion blogger, said in an interview in Tehran that whoever becomes the next president will have no influence on the fight for more rights. “We women don't wait for their permission to take off the hijab; already at this moment, many do not wear the hijab.”

Narges Mohammadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Iran's most prominent women's rights activist who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence, issued a statement on Saturday describing the elections as a farce.

“How can you, while with one hand you hold the sword, the gallows, the weapons and the prisons against the people, with the other hand you place a ballot box in front of the same people and deceptively and falsely call them to the polls?” Ms. Mohammadi said.

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