The Majles ResearchCenter (MRC) says the number of people who believe in hijab as a religious value, as well as those who believe violating the so-called Islamic dress code is a punishable offense, has been gradually dropping in Iran.
Based on polls conducted by state-run institutions, MRC's latest report says the number of supporters of hijab among youth and people with higher incomes and access to media and culture is much lower than in other strata of society.
Despite the popular belief, the report says, “The number of people who disregard hijab in urban and rural areas is almost the same.”
The statistics MRC refers to show that nearly 35 percent of people still believe that hijab is a “valued principle,” while during the first years of the Islamic Republic’s establishment (after 1979), 50 percent more people accepted it as a “respectful religious standard.”
The report also says that at least half of Iran’s population believes in “conventional hijab” or that hijab cannot be measured or restricted by an official definition and different societies should be allowed to decide upon the issue.
Before the downfall of Iran’s monarchy, women were free to wear or disregard hijab. But in a creeping move, the new rulers of Iran, the clergy, laid the groundwork to make hijab compulsory. Women initially resisted but were forced to submit through harsh punishment, including piercing tacks and acid thrown into faces of women who disregarded hijab by reactionary forces or so-called rogue elements clandestinely hired by the new government.
Since 1979, the authorities in Iran have sought to suppress any resistance to compulsory hijab.
Comments on the “changeability” of the Islamic regulations, including dress code, made by mid-ranking cleric Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari on the fringes of a controversial conference in 2000, in Berlin, led to his arrest.
A former member of the Iranian Parliament, Yousefi Eshkevari was initially charged with apostasy and sentenced to death.
Later, the Court of Appeals withheld the death penalty, disrobed him, and sentenced him to five years in prison.
There remain Shi’ite clergy who oppose forcing hijab on women who argue that respecting hijab is a religious edict that is open to change.
Iraq-based Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Es’haq Fayyaz declared during a meeting with Iran’s judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, in 2016 that “forcing women to wear hijab will not make the dress code popular.”
The comment fell on deaf ears, and the practice continued.
In contrast, there are ultraconservative clergy in Iran who believe the dress code should be enforced with more zeal.
Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a 91-year-old Shi’ite cleric, officially recognized as a Grand Ayatollah, reiterated on March 24, “Anti-revolutionary elements want to eliminate hijab in order to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime.”
Referring to Iranian women’s recent popular peaceful protests against compulsory hijab, Makarem Shirazi advised, “The police should treat women who do not observe hijab in a friendly and decent manner, but a militant campaign against hijab should be dealt with differently.”
Clergy and other theologians speaking to the media in Iran and abroad do not agree on a dress code for women, and many say it should be up to women to choose what they wear.
On social media, Makarem has been the subject of numerous anecdotes for “banning anything that feels good, including scratching an itching foot.”
Lawyers such as Mehrangiz Kar have contended on Twitter that laws cannot be against society’s norms and customs.
At least 35 women who took off their headscarves in public have been arrested, and some were later freed on bail. Two of those women were sentenced to 23 and 24 months in jail, although the sentence of one of them was commuted to three months.
In one of the strongest comments against compulsory hijab, Ayatollah Mohamad Ali Ayazi, a prominent theologian in Qom, quoted renowned Shi’ite scholars such as Ayatollahs Morteza Motahari, Mohammad Beheshti, and Mahmoud Taleqani as saying that “forcing women to wear hijab is not a religious practice and is against the Islamic code, Shari’a.”
Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi says, “Iranian law is deliberately vague about the hijab to leave room for harsh sentencing against those who refuse to cover themselves according to Islamic tradition.”
Speaking to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), Ebadi said on March 7, “The criminal codes mention the hijab in general terms but do not provide precise descriptions of what it is.”
The formerly Tehran-based human rights lawyer, who now lives in exile, elaborated, “I believe the laws are deliberately silent on the hijab to give the courts a free hand to punish women in any way they wish.”