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Lifting The Veil In Iran

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The history of what is now known as the “hijab” in Iran (and many other countries) is long and storied, beginning as far back as ancient Persia where women often wore scarves and veils. In what is surely a devastating stroke of irony in modern times, many historians believe that it was contact with Iranian culture and mode of dress that originally led early Muslim people to adopt the hijab – something that has now become a staple of female fashion in much of the Islamic world.

In the middle ages, the hijab became a symbol of high status in Iran, such that only noble and wealthy women wore it, and in fact the lower classes were prohibited from it by law. These attitudes (if not the laws) survived into the early 20th century, when women who chose not to wear the hijab often faced prejudice from those who would unfairly assume that they were either too poor to afford it, too uncultured to appreciate it, or just insufficiently “Iranian” to understand it. Hoping to ease this cultural tension, and in a belief that the attire was drawing judgment from other countries, the reigning monarch Reza Shah decreed in the 1930s that the hijab was now banned, and all Iranians would be forbidden to wear it (this sweeping proclamation affected many forms of traditional male clothing, as well).

Most Iranian women, accustomed to wearing the hijab for religious reasons, reacted unfavorably to the ban. After the passing of Reza Shah, his successor to the throne, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, decided to allow people the freedom to chose whether to wear the hijab again, and relaxed the previous ruler’s decree. This period of self-determination in modes of dress would last only a few decades, however, until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

With the theocratic Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in absolute control of the country, the hijab would now be forced on women as a matter of law, whether they wanted to wear it or not. It began with a statement in 1979 from Khomeini that women should adorn themselves appropriately for conformity to Islamic norms. But by now, Iranians were used to wearing what they chose without government interference, and the Ayatollah’s new decree was met with a harsh backlash as women demonstrated en masse in the  streets against it. Not expecting this response, Khomeini quickly walked back his declaration, assuring the country that it had been “just a suggestion”.

By 1983, it was less a suggestion than a formally enacted requirement, whose violation was punishable by law. Once more, the reaction was negative, but this time the demonstrations were spotty and disorganized, and Khomeini was not deterred. The mandatory wearing of the hijab in Iran went on unabated, and continues to this day.

And, it should be noted, public attitude towards it has remained icy. In a recent poll, 49 percent of Iranian women said they dislike the requirement and want to be free to dress as they choose. At first glance, this result could be interpreted to suggest that fully half of the country’s female population is perfectly happy being forced to cover their hair, but of course one must remember that this was an internal poll conducted in Iran, where there is no concept approaching the right to free speech. People can be, and often are, arrested and tortured for speaking out against the status quo, and anyone questioning the Ayatollah’s proclamation that women must wear the hijab has much to fear indeed. Even so, 49 percent were brave enough to declare their opposition. One is forced to wonder what the real number in opposition actually is.

To be sure, that there is widespread discontent with the mandate is beyond question. Demonstrations from women demanding that they no longer be required to wear the hijab have been spreading across Iran, despite the very real dangers of such dissent. Already, 39 brave women have been arrested and subjected to torture, with their ultimate fates still unknown. Every day, it seems, this number climbs, as more and more Iranians refuse to be silent even at the cost of their own safety.

In the midst of this mass demonstration for women’s rights, of course, it is impossible not to ask just where the vaunted feminist movement of the West has gone. These self-anointed champions of women are eager to speak up over “micro-aggressions” on college campuses, yet when entire female populations are being ordered to dress a certain way without regard to their own desires, for the express purpose of not inciting the lust of men (thus implicitly reducing women to the status of sexual objects), we hear nothing. Apparently, demeaning and outright dehumanizing the female population is only wrong when the West does it. When people of an Islamic religious persuasion do it, worse than anyone in the West, opposing it is politically incorrect.

This attitude is not merely hypocritical. It is wrong. The West in general, and the United States in particular, have a moral responsibility to stand beside these very brave women risking their lives to speak out against tyranny and oppression. This is their fight, of course, and in the end, winning it must be their victory, but they deserve to know they have American support. The US should speak out strongly and unequivocally in their favor, making it clear whose side that country is on. There is little more that America can do; economic sanctions and other forms of political isolation will only hurt the people they seek to help. But they should make themselves clear as to which side in this battle for freedom is in the right.

Mr. Bakhtavar is an attorney, foreign policy analyst, political commentator and author of “Iran: The Green Movement.”

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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Slater Bakhtavar