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Iranian Clerics Divided Over Hijab As Election Nears

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As the hijab issue divides the people and the government in Iran, politicians also debate its impact on the regime’s legitimacy and the upcoming elections in March.

While hardline clerics take advantage of every opportunity to condemn women who defy compulsory hijab, other more pragmatic or opportunistic figures, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are attempting to court women’s support in the lead-up to the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections.

Khamenei, without specifically addressing the hijab issue, said in a recent speech that “Not adhering to religious obligations in maintaining one’s appearance does not necessarily reflect a lack of belief in the regime.”

However, in a meeting with a selected group of veiled women, Khamenei defined women’s political participation as “encouraging” their husbands and children to actively take part in the election. The vernacular word Khamenei used for “encouraging” was “vadar kardan” which also implies obliging someone to take a specific action. He added that “women can play a part in this area both at their homes and in the streets.”

Iran’s ruler Ali Khamenei during a meeting with a selected group of women in Tehran (December 2023)

Guardian Council spokesman Tahan Nazif also implied that women without hijab may vote at the polling stations. He said: “No one should be denied their right to vote. The issue of hijab should not divide the people.”

According to Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, the secretary of the association of seminary teachers, the number of women who defy hijab in Qom, the home of the main Shiite seminary and the most religious town in Iran is “eye-catching”.

Tabrizi said that defying compulsory hijab is now a symbol of expressing opposition to the government. The cleric added that women from both old and new generations defy the compulsory hijab in the religious center.

He further added that many people in Iran do not believe in the religious rules, adding that on the other hand, religious propaganda in Iran is not consistent with the people’s beliefs and customs, although some of the people defy hijab only to show their opposition to the system.

Recently, the police chief in Qom revealed that approximately 74,000 warning text messages had been issued to women defying compulsory hijab since the start of the current Iranian year in March 2023. Additionally, 1,968 women were referred to the court during this period to pay penalties for violating hijab rules, marking a six-fold increase compared to the previous year.

Sociologist Mohammad Reza Javadi Yeganeh expressed concerns that confiscating women’s vehicles as punishment for defying hijab could lead to desperation within families, fueling hatred toward the system and potentially sparking civil unrest.

The rise in cases of hijab defiance in a religious city like Qom has been seen by some as a failure of the government’s hijab policy. This difference in perspective may explain the disagreement between Mousavi Tabrizi, a former general prosecutor, and hardliners regarding their treatment of women who defy hijab.

In another development, the Friday Prayer Imam of Mashhad, firebrand cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda said in his sermons on January 26, that defying hijab will be eradicated only if the people want it. Meanwhile he called the defiance a mischievous conspiracy by “the enemies.” Many Iranian officials, including in law enforcement, have blamed foreign enemies for women rejecting the hijab. But they also blame an expected low turnout in the election on “the enemy,” and not the regime’s economic failures and repression.

Last year, Alamolhoda, who is President Ebrahim Raisi’s father-in-law, opined that the fundamentalist hijab bill prepared by hardliners in the parliament was not good enough to eradicate “the non-Islamic behavior” of Iranian women. Strongly criticizing the bill, Alamolhoda said if it passed, it would promote unveiling rather than prevent it.