Iran’s compulsory hijab: comments & personal experience

“We believe in hijab, but we hate compulsory hijab.”

“Iran is for all Iranians – you can’t just hide one side of Iran and show the other side of Iran, and say this is Iran. This is a lie. Iran is me and my mother. My mother wants to wear a scarf. I don’t want to wear a scarf. Iran should be for both of us.”

Masih Alinejad’s Facebook project is My Stealthy Freedom.

From Vox’s “How one Iranian women is using Facebook to fight Iran’s mandatory dress code“.

I used to think that the hijab is tantamount to the repression of Iranian women. When traveling to Iran and having to cover, it was suffocating for me. After asking many women there about their experiences with hijab, I received feedback from those that despised it.

One comment, however, resonated with me – a friend mentioned that she thought the hijab and Islamic covering was liberating. I couldn’t even comprehend what she was saying. My friend was not very religious either, but bought into this tradition for other – seemingly rational- reasons. In justifying it, she didn’t invoke any religious doctrine.

She said it took away distractions and permitted men to take her words seriously, instead of focusing on her curves. She told me that with a hijab, no man is sizing her up and sexualizing her; her hijab and mantu (loose clothing, often like a jacket often worn with hijab) saved her from cat calls. While my own experience demonstrated that men will cat call and follow you for almost any reason in a bazaar, her words stayed with me.

From my own experience with Iranian and Iranian-American cultures, women are often regarded as a object, something beautiful to be looked at, cherished, and protected. This is pervasive in my family, but is dichotomous with intelligence; so there is an added pressure of being both beautiful and brilliant. For a second, I thought about the words of my friend – how nice would it be to don an invisibility cloak that took away the beauty and instead focused on my brains? While that may be the case in Iran, here, the effect is virtually opposite. Wearing the traditional Islamic garments here will often bring you more attention than not.

Aside from this anecdote, Alinejad’s work compels us to think about the compulsory nature of the hijab in Iran and urges viewers to consider it should be a choice.

Quick Review: Islamic Law

Islamic law is known as the law of God or the Shari’a. Classically, Islam draws no distinction between religious and secular life. Hence, Shari’a covers not only religious rituals, but also many aspects of day-to-day life, politics, economics, banking, business or contract law, and social issues. The term Shari’a itself, derives from the verb Shara’a, which connects to the idea of spiritual law and the system of divine law. Sharia has certain laws that are regarded as divinely ordained, concrete, and timeless for all relevant situations (i.e. the ban against drinking liquor as an intoxicant).

Shari’a is based on four primary sources: 1) the Quran, 2) the hadith, or tradition, 3) ijma’, or consensus of jurists, and 4) ‘aql, or reasoning (Entessar 1988, 94). The Quran is the foundational source of law for all Shari’a, however, Shi’a Shari’a also places a great deal of weight on the considerations and views of the Imams in the formation of its legal system (Entessar 1988, 94).

Hadith refers to the statements, deeds, and sayings of the Prophet and the Imams recorded and codified by their companions (Entessar 1988, 94). Both ijma’ and ‘aql are considered by some as secondary sources of Shi’a law, with the former delineating the views of the Shi’a scholars who were close companions of the Imams and the latter describing judgments based on pure and practical reason from which religious law can be inferred (Entessar 1988, 94).

Certain laws are extracted based on principles established by Islamic lawyers and judges (Mujtahed; pl. Mujtahedun). In deriving Shari’a law, Islamic lawmakers attempt to interpret divine principles. An Islamic lawyer or judge’s attempt to rule according to Islam law can be described as ruling by Shari’a, it can concurrently be heavily influenced by local customers (urf).

Islamic jurisprudence is called figh (meaning understanding of details) and refers to the interferences about Islamic rules drawn by scholars from the principles divined from Shari’a. Figh is divided into two parts: the study of the sources and methodology (usul figh; roots of the law) and the practical rules (furu figh; branches of the law). Legal scholars hope that Shari’a and figh are in harmony any given cases, but cannot be sure.

The Iranian penal code upholds the four major crime categories of Islamic law: hudud, qisas, ta’zir, and diyat. Hudud crimes include theft, robbery, adultery, drinking alcohol, and rebellion. Punishments for hudud crimes are enumerated in the Quran, which range from stoning to bodily mutilations to executions.

Qisas crimes include murder, manslaughter, and mutilation. These offenses are regarded as acts against the victim. It left to the discretion of the victim’s family if retributive injury should be inflicted on the perpetrator that is exactly equal to that inflicted on the victim (Entessar 1988, 98). Despite the legalization of retribution and vendettas, the Quran and Iranian penal code recommend forgiveness as it is pleasing to God (Entessar 1988, 98).

Ta’zir crimes are not otherwise specified in the Quran or hadith. Punishments for these crimes range from fines to seizure of property and public flogging. The judge is burdened with determining an appropriate punishment considering the temporal culture and public interest (Entessar 1988, 98).

Diyat, or blood money, delineates a form of compensation (i.e. reparation) rather than a category of punishment. In lieu of qisas (retribution), the victim’s family may elect to seek reparations from the perpetrator. The Iranian penal code has codified diyat allocations for numerous crimes (Entessar 1988, 98).

This brief introduction was written by myself and a colleague, Mehrnoosh Karimi Andu.

Published in the following book chapter:

Tavassolian, Nargess, Mohamad Hedayati-Kakhki, Kamiar Alaei and Alexandra Harrington. “Interrogating Suspects in Iran”. In Walsh, D., Oxburgh, G. E., Redlich, A. D., & Myklebust, T. (2015). International Developments and Practices in Investigative Interviewing and Interrogation: Volume 2: Suspects. Routledge.