(MENAFN- Asia Times)
Protests continue to roil Iran after the shocking death of , a 22-year-old woman arrested by the morality police for an“improper hijab,” who is widely believed to have been beaten to death while in custody of the guards.
Despite a crackdown that has so far at least 76 lives, Iranians are not ready to back away and are raising their voices, more strongly than ever, demanding the abolition of the vice squads and the annulment of the hijab mandate.
No apologies have been offered by the authorities, no resignations extended, and the Ministry of Interior, tasked with investigating the incident, insists that Mahsa Amini had pre-existing conditions that caused her to suffer a leading to her passing, disavowing any wrongdoing by the officers.
There are even hardline pundits and members of parliament who pour gasoline on the fire of the protesters' fury by them“filthy rioters” enticed by foreign powers.
In the lead-up to the June 2021 presidential election, when millions of Iranians had made up their minds to boycott the uncompetitive race as the anointment of Ebrahim Raisi appeared to be a foregone conclusion, there were rumors that the hardline cleric, when elected, would press ahead with a rigorous agenda of inducting gender segregation in public spaces and stiffening the compulsory hijab codes.
During the campaign season, he never explicitly ruled out that the cultural crusade many Iranians dreaded would be forthcoming, even though his affiliates and family members are on the record saying those fears were exaggerated to undermine his electoral prospects, and that Raisi was a politician committed to the rights of all citizens.
But it wasn't long before it transpired that the phobias, which hadn't worked to persuade disillusioned Iranians to cast their ballots to preclude Raisi's ascent, weren't trumped up. The new president had been pondering a mission to intensify restrictions on women, carve out new hijab regulations, and prop up funding for the morality police.
In July, President Raisi to all executive bodies that a mothballed bylaw on“hijab and chastity” first promulgated by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006 should begin to be fully implemented, according to which combating the trend of lax hijab compliance would be a priority for government agencies, strict regulations would be introduced for female employees' dress in offices, and publicity on hijab would be ramped up.
In tandem with the novel constraints, the Initiative for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was substantially sidelined during the two terms of Hassan Rouhani as president and functioned as a fringe institution, was given a new lease on life and took center stage as a determining body with unchecked powers. A thumping budget equivalent to US$3.9 million was allocated to the initiative while the national economy was being strangled by US sanctions.
The formidable vans of the morality police, locally known as the Guidance Patrol (Gasht-e Ershad), were deployed to streets in large numbers to monitor how women dressed. The rules were fundamentally arbitrary, and it was left to the guards whom to apprehend. A woman could be caught for a few extra strands of her hair peeking out of her headscarf, and another woman with the same appearance wouldn't even be noticed.
Scenes of violence unleashed by the morality police dragging, pushing, shoving and beating women seen to be in violation of the Islamic Republic's strict hijab guidelines furtively recorded by citizens have been making rounds on social media in the past months, triggering public indignation and resentment.
Concomitantly, publicity on the imperative of compulsory hijab has been in full gear by the state media, cultural institutions, universities, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Cities have been swamped by propaganda, posters and banners springing up daily calling on women to dress conservatively, warning the offenders against worldly and divine consequences.
Fracases on social media between the religious traditionalists affiliated with the government favoring hijab coercion and the ordinary Iranians opposed to the rules had become frequent and part of the everyday discourse, one that has been enormously toxic, pitting different groups of people against each other.
For the Raisi administration, there has been a gamut of reasons to make this sweeping investment on hijab agitprop despite its socially polarizing effect.
First, it could divert public attention from the nation's incorrigible economic hardships, soaring inflation, runaway devaluation of the national currency, and intermittent foreign policy failures of the government. People would be given food for thought for heated conversations daily and wouldn't bother challenging the incompetence of the officials.
More important, the same way the Taliban in Afghanistan has kicked off its nation-building process by marginalizing women and policing their dressing as a precursor to consolidating power, Raisi also saw the hijab dogma as a weighty rallying cry. He was able to awaken and empower the most conservative segments of the population who had been immobilized and gone into hibernation during the eight years of Hassan Rouhani's presidency.
For the new leader, subduing women who comprised one of the most disobedient factions of the society, and instilling a climate of trepidation through reinvigorated morality police patrols, were pathways to ensure his base of supporters remained geared up, and a centrifugal force that kept them motivated existed in perpetuity.
Now, well into the second year of his presidency, Raisi is realizing that his excesses on hijab enforcement and indoctrination are backfiring, and what was supposed to be an asset for his wobbly administration brushing up its legitimacy in the eyes of conservative stalwarts is the Achilles' heel of the entire system.
It was the calculation of Raisi and his team that they could weaponize the Iranian public's general conception of modesty and the gravitational pull of hijab as a religious tradition that has the potential of being proscriptive to keep the civil society in check and instead rehabilitate the hardliners that were on the margins for the past eight years.
Yet they embraced this policy so frantically that the social implosion seen on the streets across the country at present is posing an existential threat to the establishment, and the complete opposite of what Raisi was trying to reap has been engendered: The government is debilitated, and its supporters are on the defensive, with more Iranian women expressing aversion to compulsory hijab, courageously demanding greater freedoms.
Instead of increased hijab compliance in response to coercion, women are now removing their headscarves in public to express defiance.
Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist. A Chevening Scholarships alumnus, he has received grants from the Council of Europe, UNESCO and Deutsche Welle. He is a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. In 2015, he reported from the United States, Malaysia and Pakistan on a Senior Journalists Seminar fellowship by the East-West Center. Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari.
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