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Paint it Black: The Hejab Hype and the Force of Fear

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

08 Jul 2011 15:34Comments
2011187171e.jpgHow repression of women's rights and removal of media taboos work hand in hand.

[ comment ] The Islamic Republic's crackdown on hejab and the media hype surrounding the issue, taking place amid one of the worst heat waves the country has ever experienced, bring to mind the Rolling Stones song "Paint It Black." This is the perfect anthem for those who, seeing the girls go by in their summer clothes, yearn to have them, literally, covered in black...or disappear entirely.

The recent coincidence of the coverage of rape cases -- and the authorities' lack of sympathy for the victims -- with the hejab crackdown or "morality security project," the gender segregation of the universities, and the reduction of the number of women accepted into institutions of higher learning prompt questions about the agenda being pursued by the regime.

The gang rapes in Khomeini Shahr and in a village near Kashmar, the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Neiriz -- these are just a few of the stories of sexual violence that have broken in recent weeks. The Islamic Republic has generally maintained a policy of keeping such crimes out of the press on the basis that reporting them reduces their repulsiveness over time, leading to an increase in sexual assaults. Officials employ an additional justification for silence that may seem a bit contradictory -- that airing such cases just serves to scare the public. According to hadith, scaring one of the faithful is a grave sin. As judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei put it recently, "The media must reflect the truth only to the extent that it does not result in the loss of public security and the disruption of the people's peace."

The consequences can be shocking: In 2001, a rapist began kidnapping children in Marvdasht. The police issued no warnings and brought the case to public attention only two years later, after he had already claimed 46 victims. In another example, Isfahan police succeeded in keeping the case of a serial rapist quiet until his arrest, by which time he had raped around 170 teenage girls.

Journalism is a dangerous profession in the Islamic Republic -- indeed, the country ranks alongside China as the top jailer of journalists in the world. No member of the official press wakes up one morning and says, "I think this is a good day for crossing the red lines." Those lines are crystal-clear and the consequence of transgressing them is often an extended stay at a well-known facility -- Evin Prison, known by journalists as "Hotel E."

Sex, sexual assault, indeed any concept pertaining to sex: all are traditionally taboo topics in the Islamic Republic and authorities have done an effective job in keeping such matters out of the broadcast media and even off of the Internet, albeit by spending millions of dollars on filtering software.

That such topics are now regularly attracting media coverage can therefore indicate only one thing: for reasons it has not cared to articulate, the regime wants them to be reported. This is why we are now learning that of the "2,000 cases in Tehran's criminal court, 1,700 are related to rape and sexual assault" and that according to the Isfahan police chief "rape cases have increased by 133-fold over the past month."

For the past 32 years, the Islamic Republic has insisted that by making hejab compulsory it has freed the women of Iran from all that is evil. Hejab is now virtually universal in the land -- some families even teach girls as young as five to wear the chador -- yet individual and gang rapes and the molestation of children take place without surcease.

The perpetrators of these crimes are not "made in China," as authorities complain everything else is. They are 100 percent homegrown. They are Iranian nationals whose characters have been shaped in Islamic schools, where their religious obligations have been drilled into them over many years.

It appears that not only has hejab proven ineffective in the face of rape, but the billions of dollars spent on Islamic institutions and propaganda to ensure all members of society receive the IRI-sanctioned upbringing have all gone to waste. Yet instead of attempting to find the root cause of the failure of their religious policies over the past three decades, regime officials have chosen to blame improper hejab for their system error.

Authorities are now describing the "hejab problem" in terms that suggest it is part of a much vaster threat to the nation. One lawmaker claimed that young women and men who do not abide by the state-imposed dress code "are being guided from abroad." Well-known cleric Ali-Reza Panahian stated that the lack of proper hejab is to blame for the hike in divorce rates and that "hejab is no longer [just] a moral value. It is a strategic and political matter and...security issue."

As a result, the hejab crackdown this year has been dubbed the "morality security project." The tactics being employed by the police to bring in the femme fatales from Iranian streets are very different from those of years past, as patrols are no longer parked in specific locations. One young political activist told Tehran Bureau, "Mohseni, Vanak, and Vali Asr are all magnets for the morality police. I have to go between these three locations at least twice a day and I keep looking for the patrols and I have yet to see one."

This year the police have resorted to guerrilla warfare to bring in the "jezebels." According to one eyewitness, "They come swooping out of nowhere...it is like you walk into an ambush." Women are even forced out of cars to inspect their hejab, which if found improper results in both arrest and the impounding of the vehicle.

This sort of treatment of women is a natural corollary to how the Islamic Republic defines the characteristics of a good woman. In the authorities' opinion, a good woman is one who covers herself from head to toe -- ideally in black -- and purges all signifiers of femininity while in the social sphere. A good woman is one who uses makeup and perfume only inside her own home.

By this definition, women who pay no regard to their appearance, follow hejab rules as literally as possible, and avoid pleasing scents are welcome and anyone who does not meet this description is branded a "model" -- effectively synonymous with prostitute. The denial of femininity is the key to climbing the ladder of success in political circles, a fact verified by a simple look at the Islamic Republic's female officials.

To shed some light on the official ideology, one of the best sources of information is Yalasarat, the newspaper and website operated by the far-right group Ansar-e Hezbollah (Hezbollah Helpers). The volume of anti-female material on the website -- focusing on what an Iranian woman's duties are, how she should live, and she should be treated in society -- is overwhelming. Hardline regime officials have long used the newspaper to share their views with its limited readership. The launch of the Yalasarat website has now given these radical ideologues a much broader platform in cyberspace.

And the radicals are also now routinely taking to state television, with its even larger and more diverse audience, to air their outrageous opinions on topics involving women's status in Iranian society, including the segregation of the small screen. Just recently, Ahmad Khatami, one of Tehran's interim Friday Prayer leaders, accused satellite television stations of making people oversexed; he advised Iranians to avoid their programs in favor of the sanctioned ones on the 18 channels of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which presents "the most advanced scientific achievements, movies, and sports programs for our youth."

He added, however, that women should be protected even from certain sanctioned shows: "Swimming or wrestling matches on television can cause their simmering desires to come to a boil.... They don't have the right to watch shows in which male swimmers are swimming on TV -- this is haram [religiously forbidden].... Don't ask 'Why is the TV showing it then?' The TV airs sports shows, but not everyone should see every program.... A woman watching TV is obliged to look away when they show footage of young men or older men wrestling."

The combination of the surge in repression of women and the airing of customarily taboo topics involving sexuality is no accident. The regime is not just suddenly feeling threatened by declining standards of hejab. It is the presence of women in the social sphere that is perceived as the real threat.

The controversial presidential election in 2009 demonstrated that Iranian women are a force to be reckoned with. The authorities realized that by allowing women equal access to higher education -- the ratio of female to male students has reached 60-40 -- they have changed the country's social structure and helped create a generation that aches to challenge the rigid laws of the land. The thousands of videos of the events leading up to the election and the protests that followed prominently feature women campaigning and later demonstrating, encouraging the men to take action, or themselves participating on the front lines, fighting off riot police.

Fear is the ultimate weapon at the disposal of authoritarian regimes to force the masses into submission and pave the way for the implementation of their agenda: in this case, the marginalization of women. The hype over hejab created by the authorities with the media's help -- in particular, the notion that improper hejab inspires rape -- is designed to instill fear. Consider the article on Yalasarat that speculated about the reaction by relatives of a rape victim in Kermanshah to news of the crime: "Wouldn't the parents of the young doctor have preferred to hear news of her death? If this girl had died in a traffic accident, wouldn't it have been more acceptable for her parents?"

Fear over women's safety, in turn, is intended to facilitate the imposition of more restrictions on their social participation and other liberties. Reducing the number of women accepted into universities will force more back into their homes and out of society. As Hassan Abbasi, the self-proclaimed "Kissinger of Islam," declared, "The rising number of educated girls in universities is a serious crisis for the country" and "attempts to accept more women into universities during the Development and Reformist eras...paved the way for women's liberation movements to emerge in our time." He added that the high number of educated girls undermines the foundation of the family itself.

While the Islamic Republic's retrograde position on women's rights has often drawn criticism from the international community, until recently and despite the regime's covert and sometimes openly sexist behavior, it had always upheld the pretense that it is a firm believer in those rights and one of the few countries that truly empowers women.

Hardline clerics and other radical ideologues consider the 1980s, when women knew their place and observed hejab properly, as the golden era of the Revolution. Mohammad Khatami's presidency changed this atmosphere to an extent. Women were allowed more social freedoms and granted a more significant voice in political matters. The reformist-controlled Sixth Majles included a substantial number of female lawmakers.

Many Iranians fear that the current hejab rhetoric signals that the regime is looking to take away even their limited and short-lived social freedoms. "You can only appreciate what Khatami, despite his shortcomings, did to empower women if you experienced the 1980s," said a retired teacher. "Personal style had no meaning, the manteau was a loose sack that reached your ankles, and short-sleeved shirts were out of the question for men."

Despite the common presumption among outsiders, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not one of the voices behind the push for women's marginalization. He won his first term in office while asserting that the country's problems do not lie in the hairstyles and attire of its youth. He was also the first president in the Islamic Republic to appoint a female minister. His resistance to implementing certain morality laws has led Majles deputies, Friday Prayer leaders, and other officials to accuse him of responsibility for the national hejab "crisis."

Hardline elements in the regime are targeting social liberties, but their goal is much greater. Iranians revolted 32 years ago in large part because they had long been denied political freedom. In 2009, they attempted to revolt for very similar reasons. Iranian women were actively involved on both occasions, but the second time around the ruling revolutionaries were better equipped to nip dissent in the bud.

Within three months of the Revolution, the new regime made hejab compulsory, began talking about the segregation of universities, and finally closed all institutions of higher education. This was the starting point of the systematic marginalization of Iranian women, which many of those in power saw as a crucial factor in sustaining their rule. It now appears that Islamic Republic officials -- the ardent supporters of Velaayat-e Faghih (rule of the jurisprudent), in particular -- believe they can use the same successfully tested strategy to ensure at least another three decades under the hand of a Supreme Leader.

Photo above from Yalasarat photo essay criticizing women's hejab on campuses of Islamic Azad University.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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