Veiled Iranian women chant slogans during a rally in support of the Islamic dress code after Friday prayers in Tehran on Friday, July, 8, 2011. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Every summer, Iranian police get tough on women who violate the country’s strict Islamic dress code by adjusting their veils and long coats to try to cope with the rising temperatures.

But this year, amid the annual crackdown, the issue of how women wear the veil — and what the government does about it — has become part of an intensifying rift between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and powerful Shiite clerics.

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.

On a recent Friday, worshipers whipped up by prayer leaders took to the streets condemning the government’s lack of enforcement of the veil law. Protesters waved placards provided by an organization supervised by Khamenei and shouted that the Islamic veil is a “trench” that keeps out rising modernization.

In April, Iran’s national police intensified their patrols, with officers roaming the streets on motorcycles, impounding cars driven by women who completely removed their head scarves. Fines and punishments, which sometimes include whipping, have been increased.

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.”