Statements by Iranian Officials Who’ve Criticized the State’s Forced Hijab Policy
As the government of President Ebrahim Raisi, a devoted soldier of unelected “supreme leader” Ali Khamenei, works to implement stricter enforcement of the compulsory hijab as well as harsher repression of basic rights, a report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) notes that not all Iranian politicians support the forced hijab.
Since it was imposed by the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in August 1979 the state’s hijab mandate has been controversial, even among clerics.
A report on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hijab policy, which was based on surveys conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Association in 2006 and 2014 and released by the Rouhani administration in 2018, found that 49.2% of the Iranian population believed the hijab is a personal matter and should not be made mandatory.
The report acknowledged that “demanding” hijab in a society where so many see it as a personal and optional matter “is very difficult.”
A report by Iran’s Parliamentary Research Center released in March 2018 also found waning support for the hijab among Iranian society and proposed revising Iran’s mandatory hijab law as one possible approach, but nothing has been done legislatively since then.
That society is changing is clear from the government’s own reports, but so far, the security and judicial arms of the state have chosen instead to dig in and clamp down harder to impose hardline conservative views, treating opposition to the mandatory hijab as opposition to the authority of the government.
Yet resistance to the compulsory hijab has never been as high as it is today. Despite the threat of violence and imprisonment, women continue to defy the policy, with Sepideh Rashno being the most recent case of a woman being prosecuted for her act of civil disobedience. Rashno is currently detained and facing lengthy prison time.
Following is a chronology of statements made by senior politicians inside Iran against the mandatory hijab law.
- Growing murmurs about forcing the hijab on women after the 1979 revolution, resulted in Mahmoud Taleghani, a popular liberal ayatollah, openly taking a stand. “The Islamic hijab [represents] character and grace but there’s no compulsion about it,” he said in an interview with Ettela’at newspaper on March 11, 1979.
- At Taleghani’s funeral in September 1979, Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, a secular Muslim thinker, warned: “If you beat and threaten women into wearing the chador and headscarf, it would be a hundred times worse than having no hijab. Taleghani defended Islam based on this verse [in the Quran]: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’”
- At the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, high-level politicians gradually softened their hardline stance on the hijab. “From our point of view, there’s nothing wrong with wearing the manteau (loose hijab) on university campuses,” said President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani when asked about the chador (head-to-toe-covering) in a meeting with students in the fall of 1988. Also, Saffar Harandi, a former minister, recalled in his memoirs: “One day during a cabinet meeting, an official complained about women who don’t observe the hijab in Iran. In reply, President Rafsanjani laughed and said, ‘Let them be comfortable so that they would invest in the country.’”
- In August 2000, three years after he was elected president in a landslide on a reformist platform, Mohammad Khatami, a cleric, declared in an interview with Hambastegi, “The problem is not how women should be wearing clothes; the problem is how to have women present in different sectors [of society.]”
- During his first presidential campaign in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked in a televised debate: “Is the appearance of our children’s hair really a problem facing our people today? Let them make their hair however they want; what business is it to me and you? We have to take care of the country’s fundamental problems.” He reiterated his position in an interview with Arman Media in December 2020: “I said during the 2005 elections that I oppose forced hijab and I repeated it 50 times.”
- Moderate President Hassan Rouhani, a cleric, speaking in a meeting with government officials in January 2019, stated: “The hijab in the Quran is for women’s protection but what we’ve done is holding the hijab over women like a club.”
- Reacting to the “Girls of Revolution St.” movement, in which several women removed their headscarves in public, Presidential Adviser for Citizens’ Rights Shahindokht Mowlaverdi said in an interview with Ensaf in March 2018: “I believe as long as the observance of the Islamic hijab is the law, it has to be respected. But personally, I don’t like the violent confrontation with the Girls of Revolution St. because unfortunately it’s not in proportion with the offense.”
- In December 2018, the leader of the Women’s Faction in Parliament, reformist lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshouri, predicted: “One day the hijab will no longer be compulsory in Iran; this is part of progress and development.”
- Mehdi Nasiri, a former editor of the ultra-conservative Kayhan newspaper, in an interview with state television in September 2020, conceded: “Statistics show 70% of people do not observe the Islamic hijab and do not accept the obligation to wear hijab.”
- Ali Motahhari, a former conservative member of parliament and son of one of the most influential ayatollahs in the 1979 revolution, noted in an interview with the Etemad online news media outlet in April 2021: “The hijab has become almost voluntary in Iran and if someone takes off her scarf, it’s not a problem.”
- In July 2022, Mehdi Karroubi, a former presidential candidate, senior cleric and parliament speaker from 1998-2004, who is now under extrajudicial house arrest, made this statement to the Etemad newspaper: “Hijab is one of the essential rules of Islam, but can all the rules of Islam be implemented by force? We have no such thing as ‘imposition,’ so I am personally against the mandatory hijab. When the hijab became mandatory after the revolution, it was the wrong thing to do. It was a political decision and a bad one.”
- Twenty-one prominent political and civil rights activists in Iran issued a joint statement on August 2, 2022, calling the Islamic Republic’s mandatory hijab policy “a mistake.” It was signed by, among others, Zahra Rahnavard (opposition politician under house arrest), Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani (daughter of late president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), Mostafa Tajzadeh (former deputy interior minister), Ahmad Montazeri (son of late Grand Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri), and said in part: “Mandatory hijab was a wrong decision from the beginning, and the passage of time has made it more obvious. Although there are serious theological differences about whether the hijab is necessary or not, and to what extent women should cover their hair, there’s no real dispute about the fact that imposing the hijab does not have a defensible legal basis in sharia law.”
Read this article in Persian