But on a recent Saturday at the Arikeh Iranian cinema complex in west Tehran, a favorite spot for the city’s young set, only a small fraction of women wore the government-approved black chador. Instead, the women, mostly in their 20s, wore heavy makeup and showed off their braided, highlighted and back-combed hair, covered only by scarves the size of handkerchiefs that tie under their chins.
“We are used to being creative with our clothes,” said Negin, 23, a language student, who asked that her family name not be used out of fear of retribution. “But those clerics live in a different world.”
Like many young urban women here, she said that when she wears the veil, it is not because she is making a religious statement, but because it is required. “At home, with friends, I don’t wear the scarf,” said Negin, who wore ripped jeans under her coat, which fell well above her knees, her long dark hair sticking out from beneath a bright red scarf. “Outside, I try to look nice without getting caught.”
A ‘security issue’
While Ahmadinejad favors what he calls a “cultural” approach, in which the government teaches that proper veiling “prevents vice and propagates the good,” influential clerics argue that how women wear the veil is a security issue. Women who cover themselves improperly are inviting men to abuse them and are causing corruption in families, they say.
“The statistics of divorce, crime and rape are up due to the improper hijab,” Ayatollah Nasser Marakem-Shirazi told the Mardom-Salari newspaper in June.
When two cases of mass rape were recently reported by Iranian news media, several local clerics and police commanders blamed the victims for provoking the crimes by being improperly dressed.
In May, men pretending to be members of the morality police, an officially sanctioned volunteer force that battles “vice,” raped eight women in a private garden in the city of Khomeinishahr as the women’s relatives stood by helplessly.
The city’s Friday prayer leader, Hojjatoleslam Mousa Salemi, later said in a sermon that the victims were “not pure people” and said they deserved to be punished for secretly drinking and dancing, without scarves, in the presence of men, the Rooznegar newspaper reported.
Many Islamic women activists disagree with that view.
Tooran Valimorad, secretary of the independent Islamic Association of Women, said that covering women’s hair is part of Iran’s culture. But “the scarf cannot be in any way a security issue,” she said.
“You can’t blame the victim,” Valimorad said. “The officials should instead focus on these men who can’t control themselves.”