TEHRAN – When the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad uncharacteristically denounced the country’s police force for strictly enforcing the Islamic dress code (hijab), it was attributed to fears of losing popularity ahead of parliamentary elections in March.
In an article published in the Iran newspaper, the official mouthpiece, government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham criticized the police force and said the president and his cabinet were not to be held responsible for their overzealousness in dealing with hijab violators.
In his weekly press conference, the spokesman also accused the chief commander of the police, who happens to be Ahmadinejad’s brother-in-law, of not having presented the government with comprehensive plans on the issue.
Improving observance of the hijab has been approved by the country’s Supreme Cultural Revolution, and the police have been entrusted with 21 tasks in this regard, police chief Ahmadi Moghaddam was reported by Shahab News as saying defensively. He also said that details of the plan had been discussed with the president several times and the police had documents proving it.
In his campaign for the presidency in 2005, Ahmadinejad had consistently denied rumors that, if elected, his government would forcibly enforce the obligatory dress code. A few strands of hair sticking out from under women’s headscarves or the way young men wore their hair was not his concern, he had said over the state-run television. Banners that read the same thing floated around in the streets of big cities.
"Twenty-nine years from the time of the revolution people still resist the dress code imposed on them or there would no longer be need for the police to interfere so often to correct their behavior," a university student from Tabriz told IPS.
"The number of women wearing the black veil or men with beards is clearly very small, except in places like Qom, a religious capital, where tradition reigns hard. Ahmadinejad is a very clever man and he realized this fact, so in his campaign he stressed he was not going to impose tighter enforcement of the dress code," she said.
Crackdowns for hijab are a regular feature of life in Iran. Annually, as summer sets in there are enforcement drives lasting for few weeks to stop women from revealing more skin and hair during the hot summer season.
This year the police have gone further and the crackdown that started in late April in anticipation of the hot season has lasted well into winter.
Since April almost one in every 70 Iranians has been stopped on the streets by the morality police, and thousands have been arrested. A number of shops and restaurants have also been closed by the police for allowing individuals with "bad hijab" to enter. Clothing retailers have also been warned not to sell short and tight dresses or their goods would be confiscated.
"The moral police are constantly expanding their list of ‘the inappropriate.’ This winter started with warnings to women not to wear long boots in place of pants, and to make sure their coats come down below their knees. Tucking pants inside boots as well as using knitted hats to cover hair have also come to be considered as inappropriate," a 35-year-old female engineer in Tehran told IPS.
"The police chief of Tehran says wearing long boots is meant, on the women’s part, to draw male attention and is therefore immoral, and black-veiled policewomen on the streets arrest women dressed like that as if they were criminals," she said.
Soon after the Islamic Revolution of 1978 women were forced to wear headscarves and long, loose dresses to cover their hair and bodies completely. For years women were not allowed into public places and government offices if they wore makeup or did not follow the dress code. For men the code bans short sleeves while frowning upon shaven faces or long hair.
Since the early 1990s pressure has been relaxed gradually, and by the end of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami’s second term in 2005, the dresses and headscarves were still there but had become shorter and smaller.
But hardliners accused Khatami of having encouraged moral corruption in the society by advocating social tolerance, and on a few occasions they demonstrated against him, wearing shrouds as a sign of being ready to die in the battle against immorality.
Since the police started implementing their plan in April, they have frequently been criticized for being too strict in dealing with women with inadequate hijab and even with young men whose hairstyle or clothing is regarded as "copied from degenerate Western fashions." Hardliners have, on the other hand, cheered them on.
Police harshness has on many occasions gone as far as using physical violence against individuals on the streets. In a number of cases this has caused clashes between the people and the police.
When a famous talk show host on state-run television confronted the Tehran police chief with stories of violence on the streets after an early crackdown in the spring, he was sacked and his show was canceled for good.
"The government denial of any involvement in the police action against what the religious establishment calls bad hijab and immorality can have no other reason than an attempt to improve the already very troubled image of the government, particularly among the young voters," an observer in Tehran told IPS.
"Seventy percent of the country’s population is under the age of 30, and they are the ones who are affected the most by the police crackdown. In other places like in universities vigilantes are putting the same kind of pressure on them, not only by controlling the way they dress but also by keeping men and women as separate as they can to safeguard their own kind of morality," he said.
"Two and a half years since his election to presidency, Ahmadinejad’s government has clearly failed to improve people’s lives the way he promised. Rationing of gasoline that was introduced a few months back and inflation that his government has not been able to control have also spoiled the government’s image among many of the voters outside the normal 20 percent of voters loyal to the hard-line establishment," he added.
"Even inside the hard-line establishment many have turned against him because of the man’s refusal to let other players participate in his games. Naturally, with all these woes the government will not want to have to take the blame for the police’s overzealousness in dealing with hijab," the observer said.
Parliamentary elections will be held on March 14. The existing parliament has a hard-line and conservative majority that basically supports the government. But even they have on several occasions impeded the president by not approving government bills or the president’s candidates for ministers.
"Ahmadinejad urgently needs to get his supporters into the parliament. Reformists have been very active recently. Former president Khatami, who is not running himself, has been traveling around the country on behalf of the reformists and has been warmly welcomed in many places. There seems to be a rather serious possibility that reformists, at least more moderate ones, may make a comeback if candidates’ disqualification by the Guardian Council doesn’t prevent that," an analyst in Tehran told IPS.
"The government’s attempt to cast blame [on the police] for interfering in people’s private lives is risky for Ahmadinejad, because the hard-line religious establishment that has so far backed his presidency strictly demands that the government participate actively in enforcing Islamic laws and in correcting people’s morality and behavior. Even the Supreme Leader Khamenei has on several occasions supported the police plans. But it seems like Ahmadinejad has chosen to take the risk of estranging the religious establishment to stay in power," he added.