Women covering their hair – why does it matter in Iran?

By Hugh Beattie

In the early autumn of 2022 widespread protests broke out in a number of Iranian cities. These followed the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, on September 16, in hospital in Teheran. Members of the Morality Police (Guardian Patrol) had arrested her because, they claimed, she had not covered her hair completely and so had broken the rules regarding women’s dress. They beat her severely and this was almost certainly responsible for her death. After killing some 500 protestors, the security forces succeeded in suppressing the unrest that followed. In July 2023 the Morality Police, who had suspended searches for and arrests of women not covering their hair properly in public spaces, resumed them.

Iran has been in the news again lately because of the government’s continued attempts to force women to follow the dress code. A few weeks ago the imprisoned Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, who is currently serving a 10-year jail term in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her fight against the oppression of women in Iran. On October 28 2023 the teenager Armita Geravand died in hospital after being in a coma for nearly four weeks, having suffered a traumatic brain injury following a fall on a tube train in Tehran. It has been alleged that she fell when members of the Morality Police tried to arrest her because she was not wearing a headscarf, although the government denies this. A well-known human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoude, attended Armita Geravand’s funeral early in November. At the funeral members of the Morality Police violently arrested Sotoudeh because they said that her hair was not covered properly. She was jailed for three weeks before being released on bail.

The Iranian government is obviously determined not to make any concessions as regards women’s rights. In fact it is currently trying to restrict them further. The President, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hardline conservative who appears to have been involved in the mass execution of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. During the summer the government introduced a new Chastity and Hijab bill which will introduce much severer penalties for women who do not follow the dress code. Parliament has passed the bill, but the Guardian Council, which vets new laws to make sure they conform to Islamic principles, has not yet approved it. Currently women who do not follow the code can be sentenced to up to two months in prison and payment of a small fine. If the new law does come into force, the maximum sentence will be raised to ten years in prison; offenders may be flogged, and pay much larger fines (around £550). The new law contains various other restrictive provisions. For instance shops and restaurants which do not ensure that female customers follow the dress code may be penalised, and there will be increased use of security cameras in public places to identify and track down women not doing so.

Why does women’s dress (and particularly completely covering their hair) matter so much? Why is the Islamic Republic spending political capital on an issue which doesn’t seem to be a very important one, in doing so upsetting many of its own people and attracting criticism from around the world?

The main reason seems to be that particular styles of women’s dress have become increasingly politicised since 1936 when the Iranian ruler, Reza Shah, decreed that women should no longer wear a veil. By banning the veil Reza Shah intended to show how modern and secular his government was. Another example of this politicisation is the way that during the relatively socially liberal 1970s, some women returned to wearing a chador (cloak) or some other form of ‘modest dress’ to express their rejection of the westernizing and authoritarian rule of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah. Following the Iranian Revolution in 1978/9, the government of the new Islamic Republic of Iran demanded that women wear modest dress and cover their hair with a headscarf. Since then challenging this dress code has been a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the government. As one woman commented, after taking part in a protest which was violently repressed by the police, ‘we realized the importance of hijab for the Islamic Republic. It was more than just putting a scarf on, we realized that hijab is the identity of [the] Islamic Republic, so to speak’. By refusing to follow the dress code, many women are not just expressing a wish to dress as they please, they are signalling their opposition to the government and its values. It seems that the regime fears that if it gives way on the hijab issue, there will be pressure for it to make other concessions, which could seriously undermine its authority.

Axworthy, Michael (2023) Revolutionary Iran A History of the Islamic Republic, with an afterword by Ali M. Ansari, Penguin.

Nabavi, Negin (2011) Review of Hamideh Sedghi (2007) Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling, and Reveiling, Cambridge, in Journal of Islamic Studies, Vol. 22: 2, pp.281/2.