02 February 2017

Impressions and Images of Iran: Some Thoughts on the Hijab

Iran is one of the few countries (as well as Saudi Arabia and the Indonesian province of Aceh) that enforce a mandatory hijab rule: every woman entering Iran must cover their hair, whether they are Iranians or foreigners. This aspect was a first for me: I haven't been to a country where there are clothing laws like this. So I was curious how it would be when I visited.

As I mentioned before, I flew with British Airways, and that I was surprised that there were no female flight attendants on the flight. Everyone was male. That was a first for me. I later learned that British Airways do not assign female flight attendants on the route (at least back then), to avoid issues about female segregation. I overheard one flight attendant saying that they don't have female uniforms ready yet (they just started flying to Tehran when I flew with them), but I didn't believe that was the real reason, as they have been flying to Saudi Arabia for quite a while already and so I don't see why they would want a new hijab uniform for Iran when they could already use the uniform they use in Saudi Arabia, assuming they have one.

Anyway, enough of the flight attendants. Let's talk about the passengers. When I was still in London Heathrow Airport, I quickly scanned the waiting passengers. Very few were wearing the hijab at that time. Mostly it was only the elderly Iranians who were covering their hair. The younger Iranians didn't bother covering their hair. It was only when we were disembarking, that I saw scarves coming out of their purses, and now suddenly half of the passengers were covering their hair.

The same thing happened when I was boarding my flight back. Half of the passengers were covering their hair while in the terminal, but the moment we entered the aircraft, people took off their covering and put it away, regardless of whether they were Iranian or foreigner.

Anyway, this made me think about the hijab. I have encountered some women who after I told them I was heading to Iran, they told me that they think Iran is a great destination but they are worried because they are females. And yes, from one perspective, one could imagine that wearing a hair covering as required by law can be oppressive, so I looked up what the hijab actually is about, at least from the Iranian perspective.

See, the thing is, it used to be the case that there was no law requiring women to cover up their hair in public in Iran. That being said, covering one's hair was the norm. In Iran, it was an issue of modesty: people think that it is immodest to display one's hair in public, so women covered it up. Then in the 1930s, the Western-minded Reza Shah wanted to westernize his country, and therefore arbitrarily issued a decree saying that hijab was forbidden. Women were not allowed to wear headscarves anymore. He had this idea that Iranians should be more western, and follow western customs.

That decree was disastrous. When he told Iranian women to stop covering their hair, it was pretty much equivalent to telling western women to suddenly go around the streets in public topless. And sure enough, plenty of Iranian women didn't like that, to the point that they would rather hide inside their homes and not go outside rather than be forced to go outside the house without a headscarf.

And then the Islamic Revolution happened in 1979. The ayatollahs then made a decree saying that every woman should cover their hair in public, effectively reversing the Shah's decree. And this is the status quo at the moment.

So yeah, while I do not like the fact that women are forced to cover their hair, if viewed from the perspective of general decency, then the hijab rule isn't a bad thing after all. After all, in western countries, if you walk around in public without any clothes on, then I am sure you will be arrested for indecency charges. It just happens that in Iran, there are slightly different body parts that need to be covered, since their sense of decency differs. After all, we shouldn't expect this to be the same all over the world: in Micronesia for example, it is socially acceptable for women to be topless. And in Iran, it is more the norm for women to cover their hair.

So if a foreigner wants to visit Iran, then I would expect them to cover their hair. After all, this is what the locals do. If you think that the hijab is oppressive to women, then Iran is not a destination for you. Yes, I would hope that there would be reform and that women are given the choice to wear the hijab or not, if they choose to, but I also wouldn't want to enforce my own morals on Iranians, the same way as I don't want them to enforce their morals on me. I would follow social norms and customs only to the extent needed in order to visit. But I wouldn't go bending over backwards just to be politically correct when I am on my home turf.


  1. I don't really mind if it's an adult woman wearing a hijab as long as it's her choice, but I'm critical if it's the children wearing it.

    1. Charles,

      I think in Iran, girls don't wear it until they are around 7 years old.

      But I know what you mean. It's about self-determination and choice after all. It's the same reason why I am against infant circumcision within Judaism, and infant baptism in Christianity.