Farhad Rezaei

Chador Wars: Learning to Live without Legitimacy

On September 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini was arrested in Iran for not wearing the mandatory dress code by the Islamic Republic’s “chastity police” (Gasht-e Ershad). Mahsa died in custody after being beaten, but her death sparked an uprising across the country. While the regime’s leadership believes that relaxing hijab standards poses a large challenge to their control, the periodical mass protests pose an existential threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic.

Mahsa’s death created a domestic and international outcry. Demonstrators massed in Tehran, but soon the unrest spread across the country. International media reported on the case, and even the normally reticent Amnesty International called for an investigation. In a rare show of vulnerability, President Ebrahim Raisi ordered to investigate the conduct of the “chastity police” involved in Mahsa’s death.

During the past decade, Iran has seen large-scale demonstrations against failing standards of living, cuts in subsidies, and water shortages, among others. The authorities suppressed protestors, killing many and sentencing others to long prison terms. Much as all these events put a harsh spotlight on the regime, the struggle to keep up with the dress code has revealed the shocking erosion of the clerics’ legitimacy.

Ironically, in the prelude to the revolution, the chador became a garment of choice for secular women who protested the Shah’s rule. Khomeini made the hijab mandatory and the chador as “the best hijab.” When Iranian women protested against the new mandate, they were brutally dispersed, and some were arrested. In 1983, Majlis decided that unveiled women would be punished with 74 lashes; as of 1995, they could be imprisoned for up to 60 days.

Yet, women did not comply, indicating the difficulties of mass resocialization to strict Islamic values. The Ministry of Culture and religious institutions proposed plans to raise the level of piety with mixed results. Ayatollah Khamenei said, “if we want to prevent our society from being plunged into corruption and turmoil, we should keep women in hijab.”He urged to enforce the dress code to its fullest. The national TV was tasked with producing programs portraying women with Chador as the symbol of a perfect woman. Unveiled women were portrayed as the symbol of evil-doers who corrupt society.

The Propaganda Department of the Ministry of Culture primarily counseled a softer line emphasizing education. However, the soft enforcement convinced hardliners that laxity would further erode the proscribed norms. Indeed, overtime, the younger generation of women became more creative in evading the strict code, wearing tight-fitting short coats and bright headscarves which exposed plenty of hair. The gradual relaxation spurred an anti-hijab movement. In 2014, Masih Alinejad, a feminist activist in exile, created an online campaign urging women to unveil in public and post pictures on social media. Some posted videos showed the chastity police brutally beating women who defied the discriminatory hijab law triggering riots and criticism of the chastity police.

Faced with a mass rejection, Ayatollah Khamenei and Ebrahim Raisi doubled down on the dress code requirements. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution launched a broad educational campaign to improve the status of the hijab in the population. In 2022, the government declared July 12 the “National Day of Hijab” and launched the“Headquarters of July 12” to “improve the status of hijab and chastity.” The move enraged women and civil rights activists. They issued a statement claiming that the Hijab Day designation is an excuse for greater repression of Iranian women.

The regime’s response to the latest wave of unrest shows its resolve to use brutal force to impose deeply unpopular policies on the population. It also indicates that the theocracy lost whatever measure of legitimacy it had claimed. Legitimacy is a somewhat elusive concept but is not based on power alone. On the contrary, legitimacy is the moral authority that those in control have when exercising their power. Not fazed by the loss of legitimacy and unwilling to compromise, the regime is resolved to rule through repression alone.

Mullahs have perfected a system of coercion. The regime has set up the Islamic Revolutionary Courts (IRC) to charge political opponents and women who disobeyed the mandatory hijab with special offenses, such as “crimes that undermine the Islamic Republic.”

The regime has used China’s extensive surveillance and repression technology to help the Revolution Guards to enforce public order. With the help of Chinese companies, more than 2000 surveillance cameras were installed in the capital Tehran and other provinces. The monitoring project includes the installation of more than 15 million cameras across the country.

Observers have predicted that the periodical mass protests would undermine the regime. However, Ayatollah Khamenei believes that he can emulate China in ruling without popular legitimacy.

Farhad Rezaei, Senior Fellow at the Philos Project.

Siavash Gholami is a master’s student in political science at the University of Toronto.

About the Author
Farhad Rezaei is a senior research fellow at The Philos Project, where his work focuses on Iran and violations against religious minorities in the Middle East. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Iran’s foreign and defense policies. His writings have appeared in the prestigious journals, including the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Harvard Iran-Matters, Middle East Policy, the National Interest, Center for International Policy Studies (CIPS), Journal of International Affairs, the Hill, the Providence, and BESA Center among others. His latest project, "The Invisible Jihad: the treatment of Christians by Iran proxies," was published by the Philos Project.
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