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SPECIAL REPORT: Your Veil is a Battleground II

by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran

04 Jul 2010 19:342 Comments
hejabbattleground.jpgIncreasing numbers of Iranian women resist the veil, as hardliners search for enforcers.

Part One | Part Two: 'Your Veil Is a Battleground'

In the last two and a half months, the issue of "immodest dressing" -- which is to say, women's wholesale flouting of the official dress code -- has greatly disturbed the fundamentalist universe. Practically every day, the national radio and TV network broadcasts a panel discussion or a speech by some luminary or "expert" variously analyzing, dissecting, lamenting, or fulminating against the improperly clad women of Iran. Similar plaints also emanate routinely from the print media, parliamentary debates, mosque pulpits, and political forums.

Yet, unlike in years past, the decision makers have seemed all but paralyzed, unable to crack down on the erring women. The reason for this remarkable development is not hard to understand. Not only did the execrable "morality patrols" play a major role in inspiring the formation of the Green Movement, a large-scale clampdown now could easily touch off renewed protests on the streets. "As long as this tense social equilibrium exists between the two sides," said the academic, "the authorities would be taking a major risk in going after women."

In fact, according to the NAJA officer quoted earlier, last month the government tested the public mood by stopping Tehran couples in the street and asking them for proof of marriage. Some cars were impounded and a number of people were arrested. No riots were sparked -- perhaps because of the element of surprise -- but vast numbers of people reacted extremely negatively to the news the following day. Informers and intelligence agents were reportedly quick to report the public revulsion to their superiors, and the campaign was quickly ditched. When asked to comment on it, NAJA's chief, Brigadier General Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam -- who happens to be an in-law of Ahmadinejad's -- made a vague allusion to a "pilot project," but insisted, "This is more like a joke. The police are not tasked with asking people about their relations." Iranians beg to differ.

In fact, just a few days ago, police started a low-intensity campaign against women in selected areas. As this video, taken by a bystander in the city of Rasht, appears to show, police had to release a detained women in the face of public outrage or risk a beating themselves.

Several clashes, albeit on a relatively small scale, were reported between the police and outraged citizens even before last June's rigged presidential election. For example, according to the May 26 issue of Mardomsalari, on August 7, 2007, and again on February 24, 2008, several people were arrested after they came to the rescue of women who were being hauled off to detention centers by vice squads.

Still, passivity is not an option for the regime since women would keep pushing the red lines farther and farther, and because the very raison d'être of the system has been tied to the hejab. To crack down or not -- that, in a nutshell, is the quandary facing the fundamentalists.

Hojatoleslam Taghi Rahbar, the eldest Majles deputy, and one of the 36 with the distinction of calling for the execution of protesters last July, said in an interview with the newspaper Pool (since shut down): "If we just let them [women] be, we'll be no match for them later on.... This issue is of strategic importance to us." He added, "That is exactly what happened under the old regime with deveiling [kashfeh hejab]. It tormented veiled women and the masses and led families astray on the path of disintegration and corruption."

Taking another tack, the hardline paper Vatan Emruz, closely connected to the country's security establishment, ran a front-page article, "The Discovery of the Summer Sedition Project at Hejab Avenue." Its author purported to show that protest leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi had concocted a scheme to foment disturbances during the summer months on the back of public revulsion at the planned morality crackdown. Warning against the use of Basij militiamen for this unpopular task, he wrote, "In this connection, only those people and organs should take action which are fully cognizant of the sedition leaders' plans, and, God forbid, do not transform the poorly clad into the totally unveiled, and a mere social aberration into a full-fledged rebellion."

The New Hejab Politics

So what is an unpopular government bent on imposing its noxious ideology on the populace to do? Naturally enough, the first reaction would be for each constitutive faction to shirk responsibility and to shift blame. That is precisely what has happened.

The first volley was fired by Hojatoleslam Rahbar. Speaking to the vigilante group Ansar Hizbollah on April 11, he severely castigated women and university students for their supposed moral laxities and effectively accused local and central government authorities of dereliction of duty. He followed with a fiery speech in the Majles on the same themes two days later.

On April 19, Tehran Emruz newspaper, published by Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, ran an editorial entitled "Social or Economic Corruption, Which One?" The author took a hard, though subtle, jab at Rahbar, effectively accusing him of stirring up the issue of hejab in order to muddy the much more critical discussion that was gripping the Majles that week: allegations of larceny and massive fraud by the First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi. "While the issue of economic crimes has received very little traction [in the Majles]," he wrote, "some have thoughtlessly raised the untimely subject of social crimes. No one questions the imperative of combating social corruption, but don't you think raising that issue now trivializes the fight against economic crimes?"

The Friday after Rahbar's pontifications, several prayer leaders similarly railed against semi-velied women. The Majles had no choice but to summon Minister of the Interior Mostafa Mohammad Najar to explain the government's position. In his subcommittee appearance, Najar tried to allay the deputies' concerns by informing them of imminent plans to crack down on the costume offenders.

However, after two weeks went by without any action by NAJA, its chief, Ahmadi Moghaddam, was himself called before a closed session of the Majles. The best-known organ of the vigilante groups, Ya Lesarat, leaked his comments to its volatile readership a few days later. Headlined "The Strange Condition of Naja for Activating the Morality Patrols", the report quoted the police chief as saying that his forces would take action against women only if (a) there were a "national consensus" in favor of action involving both the people and every state agency and (b) no one would reprimand the police for its actions. Incredibly, as an alternative to coercion, he proposed "verbal instructions" to offending individuals.

It is easy to imagine the shocked expression of disbelief on the face of the Majles deputies that day. After all, it was in the same chamber two years ago that the hardline police chief had railed and ranted against immoral women and threatened them with "annihilation." Now, he was effectively abandoning responsibility for the morality codes and dumping it conveniently onto others. Finally, and most significantly, he was reminding his audience of the still-classified attacks on his force by some political leaders, including the president himself, for having allegedly engendered last year's protest movement through its ineptitude and heavy-handedness.

Once it dawned on the various social actors that NAJA was attempting to exit the political fray, they decided it was time to act on their own. However, in contrast with years past, and in the absence of any explicit endorsement from the Supreme Leader, their actions had to be somewhat circumscribed in nature.

On April 20, five "spontaneous" marches were organized in protest against immodesty. One such action consisted of 1,200 chador-clad grade school children, all members of the junior Basij, joined by about a hundred older female Basijis. They chanted colorful slogans: "Shame, shame on you, immodest unveiled woman!", "The source of all corruptions, the improperly veiled women!" And, choicest of all, "The woman's armor is her hejab, it is an arrow in the eye of the enemy!"

After the following Friday Prayers, several "spontaneous" marches were organized in Tehran and other cities. Soon, practically every rightist group in the hardline hinterland got into the act by issuing denunciations or sending emissaries to Qom. The common themes running through these agitations were outrage at "immodesty," disappointment at state inaction, and exhortations to intervene.

As NAJA remains the primary entity assigned with enforcing hejab, its spokesman finally announced a token gesture: on June 12, he announced proudly that NAJA had prevented 71 immodestly dressed women from traveling from the airports in recent days and forced many more to change their clothes before traveling.

Who's in Charge Here?

One question was now exercising the mind of every self-respecting zealot: Who was going to be put in charge of the morality campaign? The hardline Interior Minister cunningly responded to this concern by putting the spotlight right on the clergy itself.

On April 20, Najar announced that the clergy would participate in the "veil and modesty" campaign alongside security forces. The response came from Ghasem Ravanbakhsh, a top right-wing clerical leader whose minions have been known to break up meetings and attack dissident groups. (He also happens to be the editor of Mesbah Yazdi's newspaper, Parto Sokhan.) In an interview with Tehran Emruz, a clearly irritated Ravanbakhsh denied any involvement by the clergy in the campaign. "There is no plan whatsoever by any cleric to come to the street and rectify things. If the minister has really made such a statement, he must have meant perhaps that clerics would discuss the issue at mosques and schools." Asked about his view on NAJA's morality patrols, he said, "I am definitely for a resumption of their activity as it was last year. I also believe their level of operation must be vastly upgraded," thereby putting the onus back on Najar.

It was now time for the politically savvy president to enter the picture. In his live television appearance before the nation on June 13, Ahmadinejad made use of a both a male and a female interviewer to bring his point home. He tried to make a radical departure from the conservative discourse by distancing himself from past practice. Experts believe that his primary goal in such posturing is to position himself for the 2013 election and a Putin-Medvedev pact that could guarantee his continued hold on power.

Predictably, this shifting of responsibility did not sit well with the hardline establishment. In the following days, several groups assailed the president's new liberal line on hejab and demanded that NAJA ignore his views and act on its own. This prompted Ahmadinejad's appointed governor of Tehran, Morteza Tamadon, to remind everyone that only the president could decide on such matters.

On June 18, the country's top judge, Sadegh Larijani, tried to put an end to the controversy. "Reacting to immodest dressing is in the law and inaction by NAJA means breaking of the law," he announced.

As of now, those much-lamented women engaged in "immodest dressing" are still going about their business with impunity, enjoying their limited freedom while the regime's various factions battle over turf and a new strategy.

Artwork: A play on Barbara Kruger's Your Body is a Battleground by the IranArte Collective.

Hamid Farokhnia, a staff writer at Iran Labor Report, covers the capital for Tehran Bureau. He writes under a pen name.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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2 Comments

I think the clerical establishment is doing what it can do to distract people and also punish the youth for participation int he protests. They want to take revenge. And it is the best thing for Green movement that its enemies are the the stupidest. Let them punish men and women in streets of Tehran, Rasht and shiras and ... . It just makes more enemy for them, the more enemy for Khamenei the better :)

Amin / July 4, 2010 9:07 PM

I really feel that the "Khamenei" is mixing up modesty and CONTROL here....if you really love someone, you will not mix FEAR and freedom. A person is what their character is, not the false garment on the outside...and I really feel that these men are afraid they will have to address their own "sexual issues" if they lift the hejab requirement...

meda / July 6, 2010 9:14 PM