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Source: The Hill

Jun 22, 2023

Why Iran’s regime fears women’s hair


It’s the Iranian regime’s obsession. Surveillance cameras dot the landscape of Tehran and other Iranian cities in search of supposed deviants: women who fail to wear the mandatory hijab, or headscarf.

Thousands of women are defying the government’s injunction, proudly risking imprisonment or worse by walking the streets with their hair exposed.

The danger is real. During nationwide protests over the past nine months, Iranian security forces have deliberately shot women in the face, breasts, and genitals, according to Iranian doctors. In jail, women often face sexual harassment and even rape.

One incarcerated woman recalled that security officers gagged her mouth with a hijab before beating her. The incident amounts to a fitting metaphor for the regime’s cynicism and hypocrisy when it comes to women’s rights.

Ultimately, Tehran isn’t obsessed with female hair per se, and it doesn’t actually regard the hijab as sacred. Rather, Iran fears the Western values of freedom and pluralism that uncovered hair ostensibly represents.

The ongoing protests in Iran began last September as a feminist mutiny against a misogynistic theocracy after Iran’s morality police killed 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. The unrest then evolved into a full-fledged challenge to the government’s right to rule, complete with crowds calling for regime change and chanting, “women, life, freedom.”

Yet the regime’s larger battle with Iran’s women started not in 2022 but in 1979, the year the Islamic Republic was founded. Since then, Tehran has waged an unremitting fight to enforce its Islamist creed, which entails resolute battle against Western influence and ideas, particularly as they relate to women and sexuality. The protests are merely the latest front in this struggle.

To listen to Iran’s supreme leader, you’d think he has women’s best interests at heart. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei argues that the hijab provides true liberty to women by safeguarding their pride. “Hijab gives women freedom and an identity,” he said in a 2012 address.

By covering women’s hair, the hijab inhibits their sexual objectification by men and thereby “makes women more valuable. It increases women’s dignity and respect.” Consequently, it is “among the blessings of God.”

In a 2017 speech, however, Khamenei articulated the broader contours of his grievance, attributing ultimate responsibility for Iranian men’s sexual temptations to Western ideological encroachment. “The real war” with the West, he said, “is a cultural war.

There are so many television and internet networks which are busy diverting the hearts and minds of our youth away from religion, our sacred beliefs, morality, modesty, and the like.” Tehran seeks to prevent this diversion by censoring Western media throughout the country.

Khamenei’s rhetoric echoes his predecessor’s. Upon his arrival in Iran in 1979 following years of exile, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father and first supreme leader, denounced the shah for his permissive sexual mores. “This man,” Khomeini said, “established centers of prostitution; the television is a center of prostitution; most of the radio stations are centers of prostitution.”

In other words, the public expression of sexuality — defined broadly by Tehran to include uncovered female heads — subverts Islam and sullies the purity of the Islamist project that Khomeini spearheaded. By accepting women’s rights, allowing immodest dress, and propagating licentious media, Western countries, and particularly the U.S., challenge the premise of the theocracy and are therefore Iran’s foremost adversaries.

In this sense, the anti-hijab protestors constitute a Trojan horse that threatens the regime’s very survival.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Tehran has repeatedly blamed America for engineering the current nationwide protests. To Western ears, such allegations seem delusional and absurd (and they are) but in the context of Tehran’s worldview, they make perfect sense.

In the regime’s eyes, the protesters pose a threat because, by promoting women’s rights, they champion a potent Western alternative to an Islamist state. And that alternative has far greater appeal to the Iranian population than the fundamentalist status quo offered by the mullahs.

A wiser regime might have addressed the crisis differently. Ultimately, it would have recognized that tolerance of female hair hardly challenges the government’s stability. Rather, leniency would have consolidated Tehran’s grip on power by removing a key grievance that has animated the latest popular uprising. In so doing, it would have weakened the momentum of protests.

The Islamic Republic will never cease trying to control women. Capitulation, in its view, would compromise its very identity, dealing a fatal blow to its self-perceived legitimacy. The regime fears female hair because it must — its apprehension toward the West leaves it with no other choice.

Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow and senior editor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.

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