Middle East


Islamic Dress Code to be Strictly Enforced

An Iranian woman wearing a traditional hejab — Arabic for 'scarf.' (Photo: Webshots)

With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ascension to Iran's presidency, there has been a marked change in the country's stance on a number of issues. One such issue concerns a new domestic crackdown on women who do not follow the strict Islamic dress code. Teams of patrols are seen on the streets of Tehran, and in some other large cities, busting young girls — in some cases boys — and taking them into detention. Offenders are sometimes even struck with police batons.

According to authorities, the crackdown's objective is to put pressure on the women and girls who "pay no attention to the Islamic social values by the way they dress." Offenders are mainly young women and girls who wear shorter, tight-fitting coats, capri pants, smaller scarves, and light-colored dresses. Such items burst onto the clothing scene during former president Mohammad Khatami's reformist administration, when women had other choices beside the traditional long, dark-colored, loose-fitting gowns which had been previously compulsory.

On Tuesday, April 18, Tehran's chief of police, Morteza Talaee, officially announced that officers would deal harshly with offenders of "the Islamic dressing values." He warned that the "non-compliants" who wore short or tight-fitting coats, loose or small scarves that failed to cover the hair properly, capri pants, or those who refused to wear socks in public, would be "confronted." Talaee also said that even taxi drivers who transported "improperly clad" women would be punished. Under the new plan, 50 new police squads — including female police officers — will help to enforce the Islamic dress code.

President Ahmadinejad's Unexpected Dissent

After this announcement, hard-line president Mahmood Ahmadinejad responded with a surprising statement supporting women's right to wear clothing of their choosing. Though widely known as an ultra-conservative political figure, he indicated that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the way Iranian women and girls dressed.

"We have a wise population of women in the Islamic Republic who are familiar with the values," said Ahmadinejad. "There is no need to put any kind of pressure on them."

Predictably, the president came under heavy fire for these words. However, he revealed even more of his seldom-seen softer side by ordering an end to a decades-old ban on women entering stadiums for major sporting events, including football matches. This order, along with his comment on women's clothing apparently came as quite a shock to the religious right-wingers eager to maintain the male-female segregation ushered in by Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

"It would have been better if you had avoided a hasty announcement and consulted," chided the hard-line Jomhuri Eslami newspaper, which usually praises Ahmadinejad as a champion of revolutionary values. Allowing the fairer sex into stadiums has "emboldened those loose elements that cruise streets and parks of Tehran," it said, evoking fears that Islamic Iran may experience some kind of "Summer of Love."

Many other conservative newspapers also felt free to protest the president's statement and actions. In addition, a string of far-right Members of Parliament (MPs) have been warning of "bare legs" and obscenities shouted at referees, while powerful right-wing Shiite clerics have started a 'pitch invasion.'

Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, considered to be Ahmadinejad's ideological godfather, has filed a complaint from his office in Qom, the clerical nerve-center just south of Tehran. Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel-Lankarani, another Qom-based Shiite cleric with clout, has ruled that, "women looking at male bodies, even without enjoyment, is not permissible."

"When everyone can easily watch a match live at home, what's the necessity of having women and families in stadiums?" asked another grand ayatollah, Nasser Makarem-Shirazi. Ayatollah Mirza-Javad Tabrizi raised a red flag over the "gathering of men and women for corruption-driven actions and the committing of harams (actions forbidden by Islam)."

These protests against Ahmadinejad went on and on until the president's office formally announced that the plan for letting women into the stadium could not be put into the practice "until the suitable condition is achieved." Just like that the hope for an improvement in women's rights faded away. This was the kind of retreat by an Iranian president which had been displayed numerous times when Khatami was in office.

It proved the fact that many factors in Iran are beyond the control of government, and that it doesn't really matter if it is the reformist Khatami or hard-line Ahmadinejad who wants to make a change. No matter how supported and appreciated the president is, as soon as he heads in a way other than the suggested or accepted one, he comes under fire and has to compromise.

Offenders to be Confronted

Sahar is a 16-year old high school student living in Tehran. She suffered a bruised and swollen arm that was painful enough to prevent her from attending classes for several days. "I was walking on the street with my friends that suddenly a police patrol pulled over," she said. "All of my friends started to run away as soon as they saw the car, but I stayed there as I thought to myself I have done nothing wrong, why must I run away? But then the police stepped down, pushed me to the corner and cursed me. He called me a rotten grass and told me to cover up the half of my elbow that was showing down the sleeve. When I told him that my sleeves are short and they won't come lower than this, he hit my arm with his stick."

Although such behavior from the police force is not yet common, similar incidents have some concerned that physical confrontations might become the norm. The situation reminds some Iranians of extremist-dominated conditions which existed before the Khatami presidency.

The Islamic Revolution Spawned Strict Dress Code

A strict dress code has been in effect since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. Women are forbidden from exposing their hair, and due to Islamic rules they have to be covered in public from ankle to neck. Wearing tight-fitting clothes that does not conceal the shape of body is also forbidden. Men, too, are not allowed to wear shorts or sleeveless shirts.

The dress code was unofficially relaxed when Khatami took the office in 1997. Men were allowed to put on short sleeve shirts, and women defied the code by wearing tighter, shorter and more colorful clothing, or head scarves that barely covered their hair. During the reformist period the streets of Iran were allowed to experience a breath of freedom. The new dressing habits became a tradition, developing its own style and fashion within the new slightly looser social diktats.

The eight years of Khatami's presidency, although it failed in many ways to fulfill the public demand for more freedoms, gradually allowed subtle changes into the lives of Iranian youths. Boys and girls who were once afraid of even looking at each other, could take pleasure of socializing and even walking hand in hand on the streets.

"We are pretty. As pretty as any people from other countries, and even more beautiful. Why should we conceal our beauty? Is it not true that it's a gift of God? I want other people to see that I am pretty; is that such a big crime?" said Azadeh, a 20-year old girl living in Tehran.

"Bad Hejabi" Protested

The new police program was launched after months of rumors about changes in policy after Ahmadinejad's election last summer. It occurred in concert with a two-day gathering in front of Iran's parliament attended by approximately 100 women who protested "bad hejabi," or non-compliance with the Islamic dress code for women, on April 18 and 19. The protesters consisted of hard-line women dressed in black veils who introduced themselves as the families of the Iran-Iraq war martyrs.

A letter released after the gathering stated that, "It seems that just when the Islamic Republic of Iran is gaining on other countries in the scientific fields [meaning in atomic energy utilization], enemies have once more begun their well-known conspiracy of cultural invasion to keep our youth away from Islamic values." The term 'cultural invasion' is a very familiar phrase to Iranian youngsters. Social limitations have always been imposed on citizens under the theory that the "west is invading us by enforcing its cultural code."

The participants of the aforementioned gathering had also asked Iranian authorities to launch a strict program to deal with the people who wear "anti-Islamic" dresses as well as their manufacturers, "which are related to the Zionist centers." The protesters flagged educational centers, entertainment facilities, bazaars and markets, cultural centers, free trade islands (Kish and Gheshm islands in the Persian gulf), beach complexes, governmental offices, and media, as some of the places in which more control over dressing habits should be implemented.

The letter also said that, "non-compliance with Islamic values, occurring in the religious cities of Iran has made the hearts of revolutionary families ache." Although persons who espouse these views are in the minority, their demands are regularly met, no matter that they are in opposition to the will of the majority — especially of youngsters.

At the conclusion of the April 19 gathering, the vice chairman of Iran's parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, made an appearance and promised further consideration from parliament on the issue of 'bad hejabi.'

"I am thankful for your concern," Bahonar said. "You are definitely right. Yesterday we reviewed the legislation about non-compliance with the Islamic dress code. Although the previous parliament [reformist] had problems with passing it, we are determined to do so." He also encouraged the protesters to continue to raise the issue.

The program was first mentioned by Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, three years ago when reformists were still in power, and although much discussed, was not applied.

"We hope that with the Islamic government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which adheres to [Islamic] principles, and the parliment, further steps would be taken and certain rules concerning hejab (the Islamic dress code) will be applicable," said Bahonar.

Existing Dress Code to be Enforced

The confrontation with offenders of the Islamic dress code is not a new issue and has always been on the agenda of the Iranian police. With the advent of warm weather, police warnings and judiciary programs briefly appeared, then faded away after some weeks.

"But this time it is different," said Amir, an M.A. student of sociology at Tehran University. "That was Khatami's government which prevented the police from making it hard on the youth. This is Ahmadinejad's government. The parliament is a conservative one, too. Now the power is in the hands of the same people who were critics of Khatami and used to oppose his theory of dialogue and the freedom of youth."

Non-compliance with the Islamic dress code is a crime in Iran, a fact agreed upon by authorities. What is in question is now it should be dealt with.

Mohammad Hossein Rostamian, head of the social corruption bureau within the Tehran police force said that those chosen to enforce the program are highly flexible agents who have the capability to handle the matter in a calm manner, and are respectful to the rights of citizens.

"The officers in charge will verbally notify the non-compliants and encourage them to respect the Islamic values, and in case of defiance will hand the offenders to judiciary sources," said Rostamian. He also claimed that the 'rumors' of hostile confrontations with offenders was a conspiracy generated by foreigners.

However, the head of the judiciary of Isfahan, Ahmad Ali Massoud Ansari, recently pointed out that "according to the Islamic law 'bad hejabi' is a crime and should be punished by 74 lashings for offenders"

Another interpretation of the issue came from the spokesman of Iran's judiciary system, Jamal Krimi Rad, at a press conference. He emphasized that "bad hejabi" was an obvious crime which did not even need a judiciary warrant to be dealt with. "According to Article 638 of the judiciary law, women and girls who appear in public without an Islamic dressing are criminals and they must be subject to 50 dollar fine or 10 days to two months in prison. Because the violation warrants prison time of less than three months, it will be transformed into a fine," said Karimi Rad.

When asked by one of the reporters what the exact definition of "legitimate hejab" (compliance to the Islamic dress code) was, he answered: "It is the same thing that many of you (present reporters) lack!"

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