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Source: Financial Times

Apr 13, 2023

Rising temperatures in Iran heat up arguments over women’s dress

The fight over the hijab is moving to other forms of clothing as summer approaches and hardliners sweat

BY Najme Bozorgmehr

Iran’s hottest summer yet may be just around the corner. For the regime, fears are rising that the heat will incite new levels of civil disobedience from women casting off modest dress in favour of lighter, cooler clothing.

Many women have refused to wear the obligatory headscarves and long manteaux since last September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody after failing to properly observe the Islamic dress code. Her death triggered one of the biggest ever anti-regime protests.

But as the summer approaches, with potential temperatures rising above 40C, fears that women could go out “naked”, as some hardliners phrase it, are shaking the extremist parts of the political establishment and Iranian society. The concern is no longer just whether women will cover their hair or not — these days, the authorities largely turn a blind eye to bare heads in streets, shopping malls and restaurants.

The worry is now that they will wear sleeveless tops, short trousers and skirts, or show off their midriffs. Some senior clerics and members of parliament have urged the country’s senior officials to find an immediate solution. A recent viral video shows a religious man near the holy city of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, throwing yoghurt on two women at a grocery store who are not wearing the hijab.

The clip roused public sentiment in a society that is still reeling from the deadly crackdown on last year’s anti-regime protests, which cost more than 300 lives. Some observers warn that there is no way out for the republic but to accept the reality that, after more than four decades, women can no longer be forced to wear the hijab.

But hardliners retort that religious people would take the law into their own hands, should the authorities make a concession. Morteza Agha-Tehrani, a hardline member of the parliament, urged his religious brothers and sisters to “play their invaluable role in real life and social media” to prevent defiance of the hijab.

Javad Hosseini Kia, another MP, warned that the rising number of hijab-deniers might “steal” the husbands of more religiously observant women. However, Tehran is struggling to find a face-saving way of opening up the country without enraging a powerful circle of diehard Islamists. The regime also fears it risks looking weak, which would embolden the opposition. One option is to loosen standards in practice rather than in law.

Under pressure from hardliners, some authorities have urged women to wear headscarves in public places such as airports. But the general approach so far seems to be to turn a blind eye. Abbas Abdi, a reformist analyst, advised the authorities to accept that the existing hijab law had become dysfunctional and drop it.

“Throwing yoghurt is the consequence of this impasse,” he said. Several other laws are already being quietly ignored because of public defiance and unspoken concessions by the regime. Iranians are not legally allowed to have satellites to watch overseas channels, but almost everyone has a dish on their rooftop. The extensive trade in alcoholic drinks is also allowed to flourish, as is the practice of using VPNs to skip bans on Instagram and WhatsApp.

No one expects the law on the hijab to change. But neither will the women’s movement be suppressed. In the past, I have seen schoolgirls sent home for wearing white socks under their long black trousers, on the grounds that they were sinning by attracting men’s attention.

These previous generations may have been more modest in their push for change. But today’s women will not wait for decades while their scarves recede inch by inch from their eyebrows to the top of the head to the shoulders. A university student, who goes to school without her hijab, tells me that it is obvious to her that she should wear summer clothes to avoid the heat.

At the very least, she wants to wear T-shirts with short sleeves and ankle-grazer trousers. Already, in Tehran’s more affluent neighbourhoods, women are exposing bare legs under trousers or skirts below the knees. “God bless us with what we have to witness this summer,” says one religious woman. For now, each side is watching anxiously to see how far the other will go.

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