The Removing of Hijab in Iran

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Compiled By: Firouzeh Mirrazavi
Deputy Editor of Iran Review

The forceful removing of hijab (Islamic code of dress for women) in Iran signified a special part of the contemporary Iranian history under the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi during which Iranian women and girls were banned from wearing hijab including various kinds of chador, veil, and headscarf.

The first signs of removing of hijab were seen at the royal court of the Qajar king, Nassereddin Shah, and among the intellectual circles. However, it became official under the rule of Reza Shah.

Under Qajar kings, frequent trips made by Iranian monarchs to Europe -- which made them familiar with the clothing of the European women -- greatly influenced the viewpoint of the Iranian royal court. The issue of “removing hijab” was gradually brought up in the form of a modernization drive in intellectual as also promoted by certain poets and the Iranian print media.

The first rumors about the formulation of a new law started circulating when Reza Shah, who was greatly impressed by democratic reforms in the neighboring Afghanistan, invited that country’s King Amanullah Khan and his queen, Soraya Tarzi, to pay an official visit to Iran in 1929.

During the visit, the Afghan queen did not wear hijab and this led to heated debates among the Iranian clerics who urged Reza Shah to make the Afghan queen observe the Islamic code of dress in Iran. Reza Shah, who was infatuated with her dress, rejected their demand. It was then that the first rumors about the ban on hijab got around.

Following his foreign trip to Turkey on June 2, 1934, Reza Shah was greatly influenced by the Western-minded leader of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. At that time, more rumors circulated among the people about a possible ban on hijab in girls’ schools, though no law was passed to that effect.

During late December 1928, the National Consultative Assembly passed a law requiring uniform clothes to be worn by the Iranian men. Pursuant to that law, wearing suit in addition to European ties and hats became mandatory for the Iranian men.

Then a group of state officials, courtiers, and their wives made their first appearances in the public while wearing Western style clothes. This is why historians consider the uniform dress law as the first practical step taken by Reza Shah’s government in its effort to prohibit the Islamic dress as worn by the Muslim Iranian women.

The original masterminds and promoters of the removal of hijab were well aware that to officialize this phenomenon they had to first provide suitable grounds inside the Iranian families. From their viewpoint, opposition of the Iranian men to the appearance of their wives on the streets and in public without hijab was the main reason behind slow pace of removing hijab in the Iranian society.

Therefore, preliminary plans were made to change the mentality of heads of households which were later introduced officially. As a first step, they started with the civil servants who were under rigid control of the government and on whom the state swayed more power. On the other hand, accepting this change of style by them would have paved the ground for other social classes to do the same.

Another step taken by Reza Shah to promote removal of the women’s hijab was holding the Congress of Women of the East in the capital city, Tehran, in 1932, to which a great number of women without hijab from other countries had been invited. During the congress, which was headed by Reza Shah’s daughter, Shams Pahlavi, the lack of hijab was mentioned as a sign of civilization and huge propaganda hype was launched around it.

Taking advantage of educational schools to promote lack of hijab and establishing modern schools after the European model were other measures taken to fight hijab under Reza Shah. Although similar schools had been established under Nassereddin Shah, the Qajar king, it was Reza Shah who promoted development of such schools as a means of removing hijab.

On May 13, 1935, the Society of Freedom-Seeking Iranian Women was established with Shams Pahlavi as its chairwoman in order to take further steps toward the banning of hijab.

In the next stage, the Ministry of Interior decided to create more harmony between the men’s uniform dress and removal of women’s hijab. To do this, they passed new laws on the style of people’s clothes. Then, the Shah told the ministers and members of the parliament to take steps and remove the hijab of the Iranian women. The first steps were taken by removing the hijab of the wives of ministers, their deputies, members of parliament, and other state officials.

A circular banning hijab was approved by the government and sent by the prime minister to the palace for the final endorsement by Reza Shah on December 19, 1935. In late January, a decree was sent to all Iranian provinces for the unofficial implementation of the law banning hijab.

On January 8, 1936, Reza Shah took part in the graduation ceremony of girl students of Preliminary Faculty who did not wear hijab to put personal emphasis on the need to remove hijab. Upon implementation, the law was met with bloody resistance from the Iranian people an example of which was the uprising and subsequent bloody suppression of people at Goharshad Mosque in northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in July 1935.

Ayatollah Qomi, Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Abdolkarim Haeri, Ayatollah Seyed Younes Ardebili, Ayatollah Seyed Mohammad Taqi Khansari, Ayatollah Hojjat Kouhkamarei, and Ayatollah Mirza Mohammad Aqazadeh were among renowned sources of emulation and ulema who voiced their vehement protest to Reza Shah’s efforts to promote lack of hijab. Many of those ulema and clerics were later sent into exile over their protest to the removal of hijab.

Removing hijab became mandatory toward the end of Reza Shah’s rule and the Islamic hijab was considered reactionary. As a result, removing women’s covers by force had become part of routine duties of the Iranian police.

Following the fall of Reza Shah, removing hijab was apparently not mandatory anymore, though state-run media continued to laud Reza Shah’s efforts and wrote many articles about the manifestations of “civilization,” and “modernity” and also about the need for “not lagging behind European-style social progress.”

The general agenda of the government throughout the Pahlavi regime was promoting the removal of hijab and repressing all those who acted in the opposite direction or tried to promote hijab in their activities. At the same time, a great many of Iranian women who had been forced to abandon the Islamic cover in the era of Reza Shah, were given relative freedoms under the second Pahlavi monarch and following the fall of Reza Shah. This enabled them to restitute their Islamic hijab.