By Golnar Motevalli
March 5, 2018
One of Iran’s leading female politicians has called for debate over the mandatory wearing of the headscarf after protests indicated growing frustration among some younger women over the pace of change in the Islamic Republic.
“We need a national dialogue and an inter-generational dialogue,” Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, a reformist politician and head of Iran’s Women’s and Family Affairs Organization, said in an interview on Wednesday in Tehran. “We need to hear their voices.”
Iranians have been attempting to make themselves heard. In late December, the biggest anti-government demonstrations in years broke out over economic grievances, while dozens of women have protested restrictive dress laws in individual acts of defiance. The street anger poses a major challenge for President Hassan Rouhani and his fellow moderates, including Ebtekar. Their agenda is yet to lift living standards, and efforts to roll back the economic role of the state are being fiercely opposed by conservatives. Calls for more social freedoms risk further polarizing the nation’s politics.
Ebtekar said her department had already begun to hold provincial forums where people could exchange ideas on a range of subjects, including wearing of the veil, or hijab. The opinions of young people who didn’t live through events that shaped modern Iran — the Islamic revolution or the 1980s war with Iraq — must be respected, she added, singling out concerns over the environment and women’s rights.
Ebtekar acknowledged the opposition among conservatives who dominate Iran’s judiciary and security establishment, as well as the need to engage them. “This is what we’re facing,” she said. “All of us are under attack and the government’s under attack.”
While debate could “one day even change law,” she said, the immediate objective was to enable “everyone to understand the concept of hijab.”
‘Right to Question’
One leading campaigner, journalist Amene Shirafkan, saw little prospect of a wide-ranging exchange of views on the dress code.
“We’ve seen reformists and moderate politicians talk on this issue and state their positions, but we haven’t seen the same from the Principlist side, so I don’t see very much willingness for everyone to be engaged,” she said, referring to the main hardline faction.
The veil protests escalated last week, when a video of a policeman violently shoving a woman from an elevated utility box sparked a backlash on social media. Senior government officials have criticized the conduct of the police, who have arrested at least 29 women for their involvement in demonstrations.
“They have a right to question, according to our constitution, they have a right to bring up their concerns,” Ebtekar said of the protesters. Peaceful demonstrations are held frequently outside parliament, she said. Still, “the law is also there and it’s everybody’s duty to observe the law,” she said.