What the Hijab Protests Mean for Iran’s Clerical Class

Iranians march during a pro-hijab rally in the capital, Tehran, on Sept. 23. STR/AFP via Getty Images
Iranians march during a pro-hijab rally in the capital, Tehran, on Sept. 23. STR/AFP via Getty Images

The latest round of mass protests in Iran erupted over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman. She  died on Sept. 16 at the hands of the so-called morality police for allegedly violating Iran’s rules on mandatory veiling in public.

Amini’s tragic death is yet another reminder of how the Islamist rulers in Tehran remain tone-deaf to the demands of the Iranian people. Opposition to mandatory wearing of the veil, or hijab, is one in a long list of public grievances.

The violence that led to Amini’s death was not accidental. It is part and parcel of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s attitude toward any political dissent. He continues to believe that violent repression will drive protesters to retreat. But his policy choices are only deepening raw public anger against the Islamic Republic. Not only is Khamenei inciting the Iranian people against the regime, but his insistence on mandatory hijab-wearing is splitting the Islamic clerical class.

Khamenei  engineered for Ebrahim Raisi to become Iran’s president in sham elections held in June 2021. Once in office, Raisi was supposed to focus on creating jobs, building new housing, and tackling corruption.

None of these promises have been kept. Instead, the Raisi government has allocated  additional funds to the country’s security forces to more strictly enforce Iran’s mandatory hijab law. There are  reports that Iran is now looking to introduce Chinese-style mass electronic surveillance of the public.

Why focus on enforcing such a highly unpopular policy? In Khamenei’s mind, compromising with the Iranian people in one area will only result in a cascade of demands for change in others, from domestic to foreign policy. That’s why Khamenei, from the top, has given orders to crack down on the “anti-hijab” movement.

In recent months, the regime has been adamant about using violence and harsher prison sentences to deter what it calls the “grand sedition” behind the anti-hijab campaign. It has even encouraged pro-regime members of the public to take matters into their own hands and confront those that defy the rules on mandatory hijabs in public.

This has created new and contentious fault lines in society, splitting the minority that support mandatory hijab-wearing from the  majority that oppose it and who see it as a fundamental infringement on basic human rights.

Unlike any time since 1979, a younger generation of Iranians, particularly women, are now rallying around opposition to mandatory hijab rules to not only defy this one law but the entirety of the Islamic Republic’s draconian social-religious dogma and the lengths to which it goes to impose its values on society.

As the authorities have fumbled trying to counter this opposition—often resulting in violent arrests that are captured on video and distributed on various social media platforms—the regime in Tehran has desperately sought to link the anti-hijab movement to foreign intelligence services. Most recently, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence claimed to have arrested 300 of its “ringleaders”, individuals who, it said, worked for the “enemy”.

Among the regime’s senior leadership, mandatory hijab-wearing has become a nonnegotiable litmus test for anyone who professes loyalty to the Islamic Republic. In its ideological messaging, the regime increasingly seeks to portray the “hijab” as a pillar of the Islamic Republic, without which the political order would be at risk.

This messaging is both insincere and correct at the same time. It is insincere as it was not something the Khomeinists who took power in 1979 originally pledged to do, nor was it part of the political pact they struck with those that supported the revolution. Mandatory hijab-wearing was only enshrined into law in 1983, when the Khomeinists realized it was an effective way to socially, and therefore politically, control the restless Iranian society.

Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes seek to regulate societal affairs through a set of basic rules that they enforce at a high cost. It is all about exercising political control through different means. In that sense, it is correct to say that compulsory wearing of the hijab is a pillar of the Islamic Republic.

Once mandatory hijab-wearing is challenged and potentially revoked, the thinking goes, opponents will simply move on to contest the regime’s other cherished policies, such as its anti-U.S. or anti-Israel stance or its incessant defense of the concept of the “supreme leader”.

Meanwhile, among the clerical class, this policy has always had both supporters and opponents. The latter do not believe that there is any religious provision in the Quran that mandates it. They  argue the concept of the hijab is mentioned seven times in the Quran. However, it is not about mandatory veiling but rather the separation and modesty of women. Such different religious interpretations have existed since the beginning of the regime, when prominent figures like former jurist Mohammad Beheshti and former theologian Mahmoud Taleghani rejected mandatory hijab-wearing.

In present-day Iran, there are very few clerics that openly reject the hijab. What there are many more of, however, are those who distinguish between it as a tradition to be upheld and something that should be enforced as compulsory. In other words, there are clerics that support the regime but suggest that flexibility in enforcing the hijab is in the interest of the country.

For example, a few years ago, Mohsen Gharavian, a fundamentalist cleric, made headlines by suggesting that tourists coming to Iran should not be forced to wear the hijab. This sort of indirect and conditional critique is the furthest that hard-line circles will go. This group of clerics will not openly defy Khamenei on the issue, and his commitment to enforcing mandatory hijab-wearing is, as of today, still firm.

Khamenei has set the tone for Tehran’s response to the anti-hijab campaign, saying the women who organize protests have been “deceived” by foreign governments. Neither Khamenei nor Raisi seem interested in admitting that Iranian society is the driver behind the anti-hijab movement and that it is not, at its core, driven by a foreign conspiracy. In this context, the regime’s leadership has pursued a three-pronged strategy to counter the movement’s demands.

First, they deny the existence of popular demand in Iranian society, particularly among the younger demographic, to make wearing the hijab an issue of personal preference. Next, they look for ways to deter the public and anti-hijab activists; and then, they limit the space for debate among the political and clerical class on this issue to maintain policy clarity and uniformity.

Over the course of the Islamic Republic’s history, the regime’s policies have often pitted its supporters and opponents against one another, but rarely have its actions resulted in actual violence breaking out between these two groups. This is the reality facing Iran today, however, as the country experiences more and more cases of supporters of the regime and the anti-hijab movement engaging in  physical altercations in the streets. Notably, this is not a phenomenon limited to Tehran alone but has taken place across the country.

The root of the problem goes back to when Khamenei first encouraged his supporters to “fire at will” against anyone who resists the regime and its policies. Put simply, pro-regime citizens can intervene and use violence to confront anything they deem “bad hijab”, which is itself an extremely slippery concept.

This also illustrates, once again, how Khamenei’s political calculations about the best way to control society are eroding the role of the clergy and providing ammunition to the most radical elements in Iran. The danger, of course, is that there will be a violent counterresponse to the heavy-handed enforcement of the hijab law.

The potential for a deeper societal conflict cannot be ignored. According to one independent study from 2020,  72 percent of Iranians are against mandatory hijab-wearing. By contrast, only 15 percent support it. One can imagine the possible tensions and violence that could erupt over this issue on the street level once the Raisi government rolls out its campaign to fully enforce the hijab law, as the president has promised to do.

Ultimately, Khamenei is fearful that any loosening of Iran’s strict social-religious laws will invite demands for more change, which he sees as a Pandora’s box. Furthermore, Khamenei is not inclined to give in to pressure—certainly not when it comes from grassroots activists, whom he dismisses as simpletons who have fallen victim to Western propaganda and machinations.

The issue of enforcing the hijab is, above all, about maintaining maximum political control and neutralizing opponents. As the opposition to mandatory hijab-wearing increases and the campaign against it gains momentum, there is a real risk of violence between supporters and opponents. This makes it harder for Khamenei to maintain policy uniformity on this issue, which he desires and has so far been able to achieve within the ranks of the regime.

In particular, senior clerics will be pressured to take a clearer stance and not obscure their real positions as rooted in their religious interpretations of sharia law. This could become a source of widening divide among the ulema (meaning “religious scholars”) in Iran, particularly among clerical supporters and opponents of the regime.

Other than Afghanistan under the Taliban, which has even stricter rules on female dress, Iran is today the only country in the world where there is a law on mandatory hijab-wearing. There will be all sorts of pressures on the regime to change course, though that is highly unlikely as long as Khamenei is still alive.

Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow in the Frontier Europe Initiative at the Middle East Institute in Washington. His most recent book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry Since 1979.

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