Iran’s conservative women join backlash over enforcement of hijab rule

A staunch supporter of the Islamic republic of Iran, Fatemeh wears a black chador. The 53-year-old’s brother died a martyr’s death during the war with Iraq and she is married to a member of the elite Revolutionary Guards.

Yet in the aftermath of the death in detention of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, arrested for allegedly not observing the country’s Islamic dress code, Fatemeh believes women should no longer be forced to wear the hijab.

“Amini’s death must lead to modification of the hijab law. And religious people like me should only trust in God and hope that women will choose the hijab themselves,” said Fatemeh, who did not want her full name to be published.

With at least 12 people dead, this week’s demonstrations are the biggest and most violent since the 2019 street protests against rising fuel prices. At least eight protesters died, Amnesty International said, half of them “from injuries sustained from security forces firing metal pellets at close range”.

The death of Amini, visiting Tehran as a tourist from the northwestern Kurdish town of Saqqez, has come as a psychological blow to many brought up under the Islamic system. She was arrested by the morality police even though she was wearing a long black coat and scarf. Authorities say she suffered a heart attack while in detention. Her family claims she was beaten up by the morality police.

Iranian authorities have sympathized with Amini’s family and have promised a full investigation. They also say the opposition has killed protesters to fan the crisis.

Protesters at Allameh Tabataba'i University, an Iranian public university
Protesters at Allameh Tabataba’i University, an Iranian public university © UGC/AFP/Getty Images

The wearing of the hijab has long been a defining image of the theocratic state, which made it compulsory for women to cover their hair and body after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Some devout Muslims do not want to see the ban completely overturned, but say women should not face violence for refusing to wear the hijab. Others say the circumstances of Amini’s death are damaging to Islam.

“With the tragic Amini’s death, the hijab law will be completely sidelined in practice,” said Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist politician. “Those who didn’t believe in hijab are now emboldened to fight against it and those who believed in it think its implementation damages Islam and makes the life of women with hijab more difficult.”

Ghazal, 45, is deeply religious and her husband’s family have links with the regime. “Islam says you can help promote virtue and say it to people only once. If women don’t listen, just leave them alone,” she said. “Is it good now that the death of this innocent girl has caused everyone to say the worst things about our religion? Politics is really damaging Islam.”

Some clerics have also expressed their dissatisfaction. Morteza Javadi Amoli, a cleric from an influential clerical family in the holy city of Qom, said this week that it was a “strategic mistake to deal with religious and cultural issues through security and police measures”.

Masoumeh, a 58-year-old housewife who has been wearing chador since she was a teenager, says “everything is falling apart. That’s our economy and this is our society.” She also thinks the obligation to wear hijab should no longer be enforced, adding that her 20-year-old daughter opposes it.

On the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, protesters, many of whom look around the same age as Amini, have shown little fear in the face of security forces. “We will kill anyone who has killed our sister,” is one popular slogan. Videos and pictures of the protests in social media show young people face to face with the riot police, throwing stones and even chasing soldiers.

Others have set fire to some state organizations and police vehicles. Women without scarves are shown standing in front of security forces shouting at them and chanting slogans or burning their scarves. Another popular slogan in these protests was: “Women, life, freedom.”

After this week’s events, Fatemeh is clear that the Islamic republic should promote Islam only through cultural activities. “Islam is a religion of compassion and mercy and would never authorize violence against women. The current approach can put people against each other.”

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