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Real Hejab

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The Islamic dress code – or hijab – is a game for 25-year-old Tahereh, who feels perfectly comfortable letting her headscarf fall off her shoulders as she covers the distance from her car to a friend’s apartment building on a residential street in central Tehran. The same cannot be said for the Basij militiamen who regularly cruise through this part of town on their motorcycles, stopping to reprimand pre-teen girls for stepping out of their home without a headscarf and a loose coat, or manteau. Typically, this is the minimum level of covering tolerated by an Islamic establishment whose official line is that “hijab is protection from sin.”

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({}); Despite the official hard line, the scale of covering up in Iran varies by region and neighbourhood, and many women agree that in terms of their rights, hijab is low on the list of their immediate worries. Nevertheless, it remains a universal topic of public discourse among the secularising middle class that helped elect the moderate President Hassan Rouhani into office this summer. Though the enforcement of public dress code has remained largely unchanged during his first three months in office, the government has indicated an imminent change in the current policy on “hijab and chastity.”
One recent signal is the announced plan to transfer the responsibility for hijab enforcement from the police force to the interior ministry, which would free the police to focus on more pertinent “security” issues. Another indication are the statements of Rouhani himself, which have been in line with his pre-election promises to lift the restrictions on personal freedoms young people experienced under the previous administration.
At a recent government meeting, the president advised the police force to approach the hijab issue “with respect for human dignity and refrain from excessive measures,” according to a 13 November front-page article in the reformist Shargh daily analysing the signs of a potential change in the official stance on hijab enforcement. At the same time, the newspaper highlighted Rouhani’s message to the public, in which he asked the people to treat “the topics of character, chastity and hijab” with sensitivity and to respect “societal norms.”
While many of his supporters view these overtures as a welcome reinstatement of personal rights, most find it difficult to discern their practical implications. The interpretation of proper hijab and its relation to chastity is not only different for each government office, but also for each family and social grouping. For members of the younger generation, who’ve spent their lifetimes under the rules of the Islamic republic, hijab is an everyday reality resulting from both official and social pressures. While many are opposed to the concept of mandatory dress code, the consensus is that much needs to change before hijab becomes a truly personal decision. For Azadeh, 59, the imposition of hijab is more about social control than Islamic values. When it first became mandatory for office workers to cover their hair in 1981, two years after the Islamic revolution, she and her colleagues dug through their grandmothers’ wardrobes to find something suitable to wear. Over the next two years, the women were gradually directed to wear manteaus and slacks in one of three shades (black, grey or brown, all available at an official shop) and to exchange their headscarf for the maghnae, which envelopes the neck as well as the face.

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