‘Tis the Season for the Fashion Police

It’s that time of year again in Iran. Summer is approaching, the mercury is rising, and the fashion police are on alert for ‘improper’ dress in the streets and on university campuses. As part of their annual crackdown, clerics have issued warnings and security forces are out to make sure young Iranians–mainly women–do not sacrifice Islamic modesty for the sake of climate comfort.

As anyone who has ever been to Iran–or has even seen pictures of Iranian youth in shopping malls or social settings–can attest to, young people regularly push the boundaries of what is religiously acceptable. Women wear brightly-colored headscarves, pushed far back on their heads along with form-fitting overcoats and tight jeans with the pant legs daringly rolled up. One person once joked to me headscarves are getting pushed back so far that a yarmulke would cover more hair.  Men, for their part, are up on the latest Euro-trends and sport outlandish and intricately-gelled hairstyles along with muscle-shirts and skinny jeans.

(shameless self-promotion: I touched on this and Iranian youth’s de facto political activities in an earlier piece that is unfortunately not available for free download, but can send you the copy if you ask nicely!)

Knowing where exactly the line between proper and improper dress falls is beyond my comprehension, but this ‘slippery slope’ argument seems to be lost on security forces already out implementing these directives. Last Friday the Tehran Friday Prayer sermon was given by hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannti (who is also the chairman of the Guardian Council and a member of both the Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts), where he called for action against improperly dressed women, particularly in universities and government offices. Since these comments came during Friday sermons, this reflects the state’s official line and not the opinions of one singular cleric. Following the 1979 revolution the regime took sought to centralize and coordinate Friday sermons throughout the country so that it could spread its message in all regions and provinces. The LA Times story linked to above noted that the same message was broadcast by Ayatollah Ahmad Alam-al-Hoda in his sermon in Mashad.

It is unfortunately nothing new to see security forces harass women on the streets for being improperly dressed and wearing ‘bad hijab’. Yet this annual crackdown will take somewhat of a new turn if it is specifically targeted within universities. As far as warnings and official pronouncements are concerned, this seems to be the case so far. The Security Chief at Tehran University warned that women could be banned from universities if they receive three warnings for improper dress. Students have final exams in a month and a half’s time, so they could very well be banned from taking these–and consequently, from graduating–if they receive three strikes.

So why the directed campaign within universities? One more benign interpretation is that this is simply where the young people are. The regime wants to root out ‘corruption’ in all its form throughout all parts of Iran. Going after people on the streets and in malls has been undertaken in previous years, and while the problem still exists, it’s a fairly exhausting process with limited bang-for-their-buck. Going within universities, on the other hand, is easier. You have university officials and the pre-existing security apparatus within these institutions in place (again, more about this in my article!), on top of a fairly easy-to-use system of punishment via suspension or expulsion.

The other, more sinister interpretation is that the concerted effort to go into universities is all about politics. Campuses have historically been hotbeds of political activism, and with the election anniversary approaching in June, student protests have been breaking out more and more frequently. Student activists in particular have borne the brunt of the regime’s repression following last June’s election, and detentions, interrogations, and the method of suspending or expelling ‘starred students‘ are being used to silence dissent. Disqualifying students under the guise of ‘improper dress’ is just the latest method of containing the opposition.

My personal interpretation is that the truth is somewhere between the two. There is no doubt the regime is doing everything in its power to stop student activism, and with street protests more or less contained (for now at least), it may be feeling confident enough to move further into campuses. At the same time, I think chalking this up solely to politics would disregard the cultural and religious aspects of this and other similar moves. This crackdown does happen annually whether or not the country is in the midst of a political crisis. Without venturing too far down the path of psychoanalysis, I’d venture to guess that many members of the clergy (as well as of the similar-minded laity) would want women to be properly veiled even if the green movement never existed.

We’ll see during the next two months how and to what degree this directive is being implemented. Exams start around the beginning of July, around a month after the June 12th anniversary. But if the weekend’s protests at Azad University are any indication, university campuses will continue to be at the forefront of opposition activity.

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4 Responses to “‘Tis the Season for the Fashion Police”

  1. Anniversary Time in Iran « HGU's Blog Says:

    […] HGU's Blog Thoughts on Iran « ‘Tis the Season for the Fashion Police […]

  2. Part I: Factions Taking Aim at Ahmadinejad « HGU's Blog Says:

    […] former president) have criticized Ahmadinejad and his administration for not enforcing the annual summer crackdown on ‘immodest clothing.’ More recently, the president has come under fire for his choice of […]

  3. Part I: The Establishment Takes Aim at Ahmadinejad « ryangwhite Says:

    […] former president) have criticized Ahmadinejad and his administration for not enforcing the annual summer crackdown on ‘immodest clothing.’ More recently, the president has come under fire for his choice of […]

  4. Anniversary Time in Iran « ryangwhite Says:

    […] down for periods of time, several newspapers have been ordered closed and others warned, and the moral/fashion police have been out in droves, particularly within the university. And then of course […]

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