Iranian Parliamentary Group Reports Drop in Support For Strict Hijab
Conservative-Dominated Parliament Compiles Data Showing Failure of State’s Hijab Policy
Iran’s Parliamentary Research Center (PRC) has released a report showing decreasing support among the Iranian public for strict observation of the hijab, the head-to-toe Islamic dress code that women in Iran are required to observe in public.
The parliamentary group also referenced other reports released since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which reveal that the Islamic Republic’s decades-long endorsement of strict hijab has failed to get the public to willfully embrace it.
The report’s significance lies in the timing of its release—when women in Iran are being jailed in record numbers for peacefully protesting against the compulsory hijab by removing it in public, and because Iran’s Parliament is dominated by conservatives who have historically preached strict observance of the hijab.
The PRC also proposed repealing Iran’s hijab law as one of five approaches that the state could adopt to counter waning support of the hijab, arguing that the state’s aim of getting people to embrace it could be achieved in more subtle ways.
In the early years of the revolution, similar government reports showed people favoring strict adherence to Sharia law’s interpretation of the hijab (for women, no skin, body outlines or hair shown apart from the head and face).
But according to the PRC’s recent report, more Iranians are supporting what’s known in Iran as a secular interpretation of the hijab, the view that women should still wear a headscarf but could allow some hair and skin to show.
“…[I]nvestigations indicate that sharia law’s [interpretation of] the hijab is valued by 35 percent of people in society and about 55 percent of women value its secular manifestations,” said the report, referencing the year 2017.
“In effect, there is a kind of ambivalence toward religious hijab among a portion of people in society that leads to a preference of secular hijab over religious hijab,” it added.
The 39-page report, “Factors Leading to the Implementation of Hijab Policies and Solutions Ahead, published online on July 28, 2018, provides a written summary of data compiled by the PRC from multiple sources including surveys, research data and studies.
In many parts of the report, important information is left out, such as the demographics of the respondents and survey dates and methods. This article by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) is a summary of the PRC report’s findings as they were presented.
From Religious to Secular Observance of the Hijab
Shortly after Iran’s revolution, all women were legally required to observe the hijab in public. Article 638 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code states, “Women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of 50 thousand to five hundred rials.”
But according to the PRC’s report, that law has failed to achieve the Islamic Republic’s aim of getting people to embrace strict hijab as a matter of preference. To reinforce that point, the parliamentary group referenced several surveys showing that the strong support for strict observance of the hijab substantially declined after the first decade of the revolution.
According to the PRC, in 1986, seven years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, 86.2 percent of respondents looked negatively upon those who rejected the hijab. The hijab was also most strictly observed during that first decade after the revolution.
By 1992, only around 41 percent of respondents described the lack of the hijab on a woman as a moral flaw.
In 1986, 82 percent of respondents said they were more “respectful” toward women who wore the chador. But by 1992, that number had fallen to almost 37 percent.
Increasing Opposition to State Enforcement of Hijab Law
The parliamentary group also referenced data showing that an increasing number of people oppose state enforcement of a strict hijab law, with more seeing the hijab as a personal matter.
According to a study conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA), in 2006, only 35 percent of respondents said they considered the hijab a personal issue and opposed state enforcement. But that number had increased to 49.2 percent by 2014.
The PRC also noted that in 2006, some 55 percent of respondents said the state should confront women who do not properly observe the hijab. But by 2014, that number had dropped to about 40 percent.
Variables Affecting Strict Hijab Approval Rate
According to the PRC, respondents’ education level substantially impacted the extent to which they observed the hijab; the more educated they were, the less they tended to observe it. Age was also a factor; older women were more likely to observe the hijab.
The report also showed that “the high price of Islamic clothing and lack of a fundamental mechanism in offering attractive and inexpensive clothing” were reasons why people were less willing to strictly observe the hijab.
The PRC noted that respondents who described themselves as unemployed, students and employees in the private sector were laxer in observing the hijab.
Employees of private companies, bazaar merchants, professional laborers and those in the media business were described in the report as the least likely to comply with Iran’s hijab law.
Marital status wasn’t shown to be a major factor in the PRC report; it stated that there was only a 10 percent difference between the perceptions of wives and single women toward the hijab.
The report also claimed there was a direct correlation between increasing consumption of “certain kinds of media outlets” and respondents’ lack of interest in the hijab.
Impact of the Media
The PRC noted that mass media, including satellite TV channels and movies, have a direct and meaningful impact on how people view the hijab. According to the PRC, studies show that spending more hours watching satellite TV channels or going to movie theaters results in fewer women strictly observing the hijab, especially if they are educated.
Impact of Socioeconomic Status
The PRC also argued that as women in Tehran became more educated, their clothing became more “inappropriate” according to Islamic standards. The report states that in general, there is a connection between socio-economic status and the degree of hijab observance. The higher the status, the lower the observance.
Hijab in Iran: Five Approaches
The PRC’s report ends by discussing five ways the state could address hijab observance in Iran.
1) Intensifying prohibitions and criminalizing violations: This approach calls for stricter laws and punishments for those who do not observe the strict hijab in public. The PRC notes that this would require public acceptance of the worthiness of the strict hijab, as well as solidarity among various state bodies, political factions and the “elite” in confronting hijab law violations. The report adds that those conditions do not currently exist in Iran. Therefore, carrying out such a policy would be ineffective, causing more people in the undecided camp to drift towards the secular interpretation of the hijab.
2) Decriminalization and gradual measures: This approach calls for ending legal enforcement of strict hijab adherence in Iran and focusing on raising awareness about the values of the hijab while introducing positive incentives for those who observe it in the workplace. The PRC cautions that moving in this direction requires a non-violent approach to people who have opposing views on the issue. Any sudden and harsh actions would not only increase social tensions but also push people towards more liberal attitudes on sexual relations, according to the PRC.
3) Keeping the status quo: This option reveals what the PRC sees as the lack of suitable means for the state to improve the current situation—in other words, getting more people to willfully embrace the hijab. According to the PRC, proponents of maintaining the status quo say that increased state enforcement of the hijab would only make matters worse. On the other hand, opponents believe that doing nothing would only increase campaigns against the compulsory hijab in Iran and further diminish society’s adherence to it.
4) Ignoring violations and gradual decriminalization: “In this scenario, the situation concerning bad hijabs [improperly worn hijabs] would encounter neglect and people would feel free to choose their own clothing and, more and more, the hijab would become a personal matter and the social consequences would be overlooked. Naturally, in the midterm, as a result of the government’s failed policies and the continuation of the status quo, it is likely that bad hijab behavior will become uninhibited and in effect decriminalized.”
5) Reforming hijab policies with an emphasis on raising public awareness through media and advertising: This approach again proposes using the media and other tools to raise the cultural and aesthetic value of the hijab. This view relies on the notion that people generally support the hijab in their own way and that the media could help strengthen that belief. The PRC adds that artisans should be encouraged by the state to offer more attractive products relating to the Islamic hijab, at suitable prices, to counter secular alternatives.
*This article was revised on August 9, 2018, to include verbatim the proposed “scenario” for item number four.