Following through on a campaign promise, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced last week a loosening of one of the Islamic Republic’s most visible and most notorious assaults on personal freedom: the policing of women’s attire in public places.
Rouhani transferred the authority from the national morality police to the Interior Ministry, which has less manpower to carry out patrols and make arrests, thereby effecting an easing of enforcement, The Telegraph reported last week.
“This is awesome news,” Daniel Tavana, research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Doublethink. “Many women [in Iran] feel like the restrictions have gotten out of control, the enforcement has become abusive and even borders on harassment.”
To outsiders, the mere idea of a police force charged with enforcing state-sanctioned standards of dress in public places may seem bizarre, but all across Iran it is a fact of daily life.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, lived in Tehran for a portion of his dissertation years. In a recent interview, he recalled people’s routinely concerted efforts to avoid a confrontation with the Gasht-e-Ershad, as the morality police are known, and unofficial vigilante groups that take dress-code enforcement upon themselves, often with more violent tactics.
“Harassment over dress is a constant aggravation,” he said. “It’s especially severe when it comes to women.”
So a change is welcome, but the political context for this move adds nuance to its significance. Many issues are at play that make it difficult to tell what the long-term result of Rouhani’s announcement will be.
For one, Iran’s government is made of disparate power centers that can be played off one another, and this often dissipates the impact of actual policy changes. Rubin emphasized this point and qualified the significance of Rouhani’s announcement.
“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” he said. “If you want to disempower an organization, you just prioritize another organization. When that organization gets too big for its britches, you shift back. This is something that is cyclical in the Islamic Republic’s history.”
Tavana, the POMED expert, also cautioned that the “black-box nature” of the Iranian government’s decision-making impedes the ability to judge the development.
“If it’s actually case that the authority is transferring from the police to the Interior Ministry, probably that means that they’re generally going to aim for less of a presence out in the streets,” he said.
The Interior Ministry wouldn’t have the manpower to keep up the street patrols. Still, Brigadier Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, head of the Iranian national police, suggested last week that the enforcement could very well remain strict.
“We will continue being available in any capacity as they may require us,” he told The Telegraph.
The Supreme Leader’s Take
Not least significant is the view of Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, who holds the most governing power over all aspects of Iranian society. Rubin described one way of seeing the Supreme Leader’s authority as that of a dictator by veto. “He seldom says what to do, but he’ll often say what not to do.”
The official sermons local clerics give at Friday prayers typically provide the best sense of where Khamenei stands on a given topic. “Think of it almost like a State of the Union address, every single week,” Rubin said.
In the coming weeks, if clerics begin to use these sermons to espouse the benefits of conservative dress, it will signify that a crackdown is coming on the veiling issue.
“Khamenei still has the final word in all matters in the governance of the country but tries to remain above the political fray,” Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani, a consultant for the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in an email. “That being said, historically the office of the President does have some power, which is usually relegated to the economy as well as cultural issues.”
Tavana and Kashani both cautioned that some of Rouhani’s attempts at reform have seen pushback from government entities more directly under Khamenei’s control, such as the judiciary, which recently rejected the president’s suggestion to release more political prisoners.
What About the Rest of Society?
Kashani strongly suggested that the relaxation on women’s veils pales in comparison to the myriad issues Iranians still face.
International sanctions have caused steady increases in food prices, scarcity in the medical market, and rampant deflation of the currency.
And men’s attire, for what it’s worth, wasn’t part of Rouhani’s announcement at all. They could ostensibly still go to jail for being in public with long hair or tight-fitting clothes.
“When taking these important issues into consideration, easing back on a ‘loosely fitted veil’ seems like a cosmetic fix at best,” he said.
Julie Ershadi is a writer based on Washington, D.C. Image of woman courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire