UPI reported, for instance, that female participants in the protests had been seen to cast off their legally mandated head coverings, thus going public with a form of protest that had been practiced privately on social media by many women in recent years.
In the capital city of Tehran, this act may have indicated a response not only to the environment of the protests themselves, but also awareness of recent statements from city officials indicating that violations of the forced veiling law would no longer be so strictly enforced. The Associated Press reported upon this development last week, noting that according to a police spokesman, women would no longer be detained after being found in violation of the Islamic dress code, but would instead be ordered to attend classes on acceptable public behavior.
However, the AP also indicated that there were serious doubts about whether the new order would actually be fully implemented. Clerical authorities have the power to overturn virtually any political decision in the Islamic Republic. Additionally, in recent years those authorities have tightened restrictions on women in many respects, expanding the segregation of genders in public places and setting policies that were explicitly aimed at encouraging women to start families at an early age while avoiding higher education and careers.
Furthermore, the Telegraph reported that the Tehran police’s announcement may have been influence by the previous announcement of widespread gender reforms by Iran’s main regional rival, Saudi Arabia. The two countries have been involved in an escalating war of words for the past few years, during which time human rights activism has put much of Iran’s institutionalized gender discrimination in the international spotlight.
Even in absence of mass protests, Iranian women have put considerable effort into raising the awareness of these issues. On Sunday, IranWire gave one example of this trend in the form of a profile of the latest young women to disguise herself as a man in order to sneak into Ghadir Stadium for a soccer game. Women are famously barred from attending Iranian sporting events alongside male spectators. IranWire notes that some defenders of the ban have asserted that doing so would cause those women to become “agitated”.
The implied paranoia about sexual desire is so pervasive that the regime’s gender segregation and strict enforcement of the Islamic dress code have even come to encompass pre-pubescent children. In 2012, for instance, it was announced that the Islamic Republic would publish separate school textbooks for boys and girls. And on Saturday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that a 10-year-old Iranian gymnast had been caught up in a hijab controversy after a news outlet that is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps published disputed allegations that she had appeared in competition in Malaysia without her head covering.
As the CHRI report notes, Iran’s obsession with this issue even in the international context was highlighted in a New York Times article written by Iranian juvenile chess champion Dorsa Derakhshani, who left the Iranian national team in 2015 and subsequently sought US citizenship in order to continue her chess career there. Her article explained that Iranian authorities repeatedly criticized her attire and showed more interest in that aspect of female players than in their actual contributions to the team.
In February 2017, the Iranian chess federation banned Derakhshani from ever returning to the national team, in response to her having appeared without her head covering while playing for foreign chess clubs. Such developments indicate the persistence of Iranian authorities’ commitment to gender discrimination, notwithstanding isolated, local trends in the opposite direction. For this reason, it remains to be seen whether a more permissive attitude toward “bad hijab” will indeed by enforced among the Tehran police, especially after security forces’ attention is no longer focused upon the ongoing protests that are encouraging women to remove their veils.