The conservative clerics, and like-minded military commanders, complain that Ahmadinejad isn’t doing enough to ensure that the dress code is strictly enforced. Some have also blamed recent violence against women on the victims, arguing that they were at fault because they wore the veil improperly.
The debate is the latest in a series of public clashes between the country’s secular leaders, who run day-to-day politics, and its religious officials. Ahmadinejad’s critics charge that his inner circle of advisers is plotting to undermine their influence on the Islamic republic. They accuse the president and his men of advocating more personal freedoms to widen their popular base.
After Ahmadinejad’s public fallout with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in April over the forced resignation of one of the president’s ministers, clerics, parliamentarians and Revolutionary Guard commanders who used to be among Ahmadinejad’s strongest supporters are criticizing him on many fronts, including his plan to give Iranians free plots of land and his handling of the economy.
The issue of veiling is at the top of their agenda, with ideologues arguing that head scarves that reveal too much hair pose a serious threat to Iran’s core values.
An imprecise law
During the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, bikinis and miniskirts were not uncommon here. But since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian law has required women to cover their hair and wear long coats in public.
Clerics say the practice protects the purity of women. But the law is imprecise and, with more and more women wearing tight-fitting spandex coats and loosely fitted scarves, clerics complain that Iranian cities increasingly resemble Western metropolises where women roam the streets “practically naked.”
Ahmadinejad has made clear that his government does not support harsh measures against women who “have two strands of hair sticking out from under their scarves,” as he put it in a rare remark on the topic in a live television interview in 2010. He stressed that he preferred education about the veil over enforcement of the law, so that “the benefits of the hijab” become clear and women decide on their own to fully cover themselves.
But this summer, leading clerics have become fed up with his “lax and negligent” approach. “Blood should be shed to solve this issue and eradicate this problem from the society,” Tehran’s Friday prayer leader, Ahmad Khatami, said recently.
“The issue has turned into a lever for the government and its opponents trying to force their supremacy on the other side,” said Ali Reza Alavitabar, a Tehran political strategist who was involved in an influential political faction that advocates greater personal freedom. “This is about showing the country which side is really in power,” he said.