Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been at the center of an incredibly tense debate over Iran’s hijab law for the past couple of weeks and has abruptly released a three-year-old report that suggested almost half of Iranians were against the controversial hijab law.
The report, made by the Iranian Center for Strategic Studies, dates back to 2014 when the Iranian Student’s Polling Center asked around a thousand men and women whether or not they opposed to the Iran hijab law. The four-decade-old law forces women to wear the Islamic veil when in public, as well as wear loose-fitting clothing that covers their arms and legs.
According to CNN, the report suggested that 49.2% of 1,167 respondents said that wearing a hijab should be a personal issue and that the government should not interfere.
The timing of the report puts President Rouhani in a very unusual position – walking a thin line between the country’s strict Islamic hardliners and the reformers whose movement has gained quite a momentum in the past few years.
“This could be Rouhani‘s attempt to be seen as someone who can listen to the Iranian people, compared to other politicians who are perhaps impinging their ideological will on the people,” Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at Chatham House who studies Iran, told CNN. “People might appreciate that he’s releasing this information, but will ask if it will actually result in anything.”
Nina Ansary, an expert on women’s rights issues in Iran, told CNN that while the release of the report is a strategic move by Rouhani, it wouldn’t necessarily lead to reforms. “This move is extremely strategic. On the surface, it immediately appears that he’s waving the flag of women’s rights to choose to wear the veil or not, but when you think that this report signals half of the country is in favor of the law, it’s almost a back-handed way of lending support for the regime.”
“Rouhani has not back up this report by calling for reform … the ambiguous nature of releasing such a report without a statement leaves a question mark,” Ansary added.
The Iranian Center for Strategic Studies report came just days after more than two dozen protestors were arrested for their involvement in the protests against the Iran hijab law. According to CNN, police in the Iranian capital, Tehran, have arrested 29 people for protesting against the country’s compulsory hijab law. Tehran police suggested that their actions were incited by foreigners, saying those arrested were “deceived” into removing their hijabs, Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim News Agency reported.
With more and more women removing their headscarves in public to protest the incredibly strict Iran hijab law in the recent weeks, the arrests made by Tehran police were highly publicized. According to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), a total 4,972 arrests have been made during the recent protests in January.
The movement against Iran hijab law a step towards progress?
Despite the facts that there have been sporadic outbursts of protests against the 40-year-old Iran hijab law, the movement gained momentum amidst a wave of anti-government protests that have started as a relatively small venture on December 28 in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city.
The initial protests were about expressing anger over the economy struggling under the international sanctions imposed on Iran, as well as the skyrocketing prices of basic necessities such as eggs and poultry. However, the protests quickly spread out and started targeting Iran’s political leaders, with calls being made to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to resign. According to Business Insider, at least 21 people have died during the two months of demonstrations. The Guardian reported that at least three of those protestors died while in custody in a Tehran prison.
In light of the thousands of people arrested for involvement in the protests, it became obvious that the government was trying to put out all acts of defiance. The protests quickly shifted focus, and this time they’re objecting to the strict Iran hijab law.
The protests against the Iran hijab law were started by Masih Alinejad, the founder of My Stealthy Freedom, an online movement that opposes the dress code. Alinejad, the activist behind the “White Wednesday” social media campaign, who is now based in the US, told CNN that despite accusations the Iranian government has made, the movement has not been influenced from abroad.
“The movement started inside Iran. It has nothing to do with forces outside of Iran,” Alinejad said.”This is a campaign that’s been going on for years and years. The women of Iran have long been ignored. We’re just giving them a platform.”
While it’s hard to say whether or not it’s the direct consequence of the mass protests against the Iran hijab law, enforcement of the law banning the hijab has been relaxed in the past couple of months. Up until recently, women who refused to wear a hijab in public could be admonished by the religious police. However, according to a recent report by CNN, the forces behind the Iran hijab law have been less prominent under the regime of President Hassan Rouhani. CNN also reported that Iranian authorities also announced that women driving with improper head coverings would no longer be arrested, and instead receive a relatively small fine.
Soheila Jaloodarzadeh, a female member of the Iranian Parliament, said on Wednesday during an event on women’s rights that the protests were the consequence of years of restrictions, the semiofficial Ilna news agency reported.
“When we restrict women and put them under unnecessary pressure, exactly this is the reason for rebellions,” CNN reported Jaloodarzadeh saying. “This is the reason… the daughters of Revolution Street are putting their headscarves on a stick.”
And while the easing of enforcement of the Iran hijab law has emboldened women to become more defiant, recent incidents in which women were jailed for removing their headscarves don’t seem to show that huge of a step towards a more liberal Iran.
“Although Rouhani does align himself with protesters from time to time … his allegiance appears to be to the system. So he has to walk a tightrope,” Nina Ansary said. “Rouhani won because he made so many pledges to help reform many of the gender discriminatory laws. Women voted for him in droves and so did the youth, but he has done very little to bring about significant change for Iranian civil society.”