FRONTLINE: Tehran Bureau: ‘Hejab and Chastity Conference’ Passes Quietly | PBS
While the announcement of the Hejab and Chastity Conference has apparently created quite a stir internationally, here in Iran the event seems to have passed unnoticed, which may be by design.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently took a surprising stance on the subject. “The government has nothing to do with it and doesn’t interfere in it,” he said. “We consider it insulting when a man and a woman are walking in the streets and they’re asked about their relationship. No one has the right to ask about it.”
This statement is in stark contrast to the reality: numerous young people have been arrested and fined this summer for not adhering strictly enough to the Islamic dress code or for going out in public with unmarried members of the opposite sex. The fact that the conference is receiving little coverage domestically may mean that authorities have chosen not to stoke the public’s frustration.
The conference coincides with two days of impromptu public holidays — officially attributed to unbearably hot weather, more likely called to lessen the impact of growing strikes within Tehran’s bazaar. The event, designed to promote supposedly proper Islamic hairstyles and fashions, has been all but ignored by state-controlled media, although it was scheduled to take place on the grounds of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
Generally when such events coincide with nonreligious public holidays, the doors are opened to the public and the proceedings filmed as propaganda opportunities to demonstrate the popularity of the regime and its policies. This time no such public invitation was made, though the conference addresses an issue claimed as an ideological pillar by the Islamic Republic.
According to the announcement made by the conference’s organizers, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture, the event was designed as a celebration to focus on the key role of hairdressers, barbers, and make-up artists in spreading hejab and chastity within Iranian society.
Several top officials, including Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture Mohammad Hossieni and administrators of the University of Tehran, will take part in the conference, arguing for the importance of hejab and chastity to Iranian culture both today and historically. These hardliner defenders of the Islamic Republic contend that Iran’s enemies intend to penetrate and subvert the society by spreading Western culture, paralyzing Iranian minds. Judging by the hairstyles one sees in the country’s urban areas, they may have a point.
According to the Islamic Republic News Agency, it was among the event’s stated goals to reenvision what constitutes beauty, to align that with acceptable Islamic social norms, and then to disseminate that message to Iranian families, especially those that include teenagers and young children.
The conference furthermore intends to diminish the spread of non-Islamic models and Western fashions among Iranian youngsters, and to provide practical guidelines to hairdressers and barbers throughout Iran to follow when styling their clients.
Reports of a list of hairstyles deemed permissible by Iranian authorities have been circulating for the past week, and it was expected that these would be a major topic of discussion at the conference.
This is not the first time that the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture has conceived of such a conference. In 2006, when a bill to regulate matters of fashion was passed by the Majles (parliament) and put into action by President Ahmadinejad’s first administration.
The police were also obliged to initiate a campaign against ordinary people based on a comprehensive plan to suppress “bad hejab,” proposed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and passed by the High Council of Cultural Revolution.
Under the plan, gasht-e ershad — literally, “guardian patrols,” often referred to as “morality police” — were called upon to attack and arrest young people, usually girls, especially during the summer, when temperatures soar. As the campaign gained strength, a growing number of arrests were made of middle-aged women as their husbands stood by in disbelief. Those arrested were generally forced to pay fines rather than serve jail time.
Law enforcement officials, however, seem to be waging a losing battle. While free expression within the rigid legal and cultural confines of the Islamic Republic has never been easy, enforcement of these draconian guidelines becomes ever more difficult as more and more Iranians adopt Western styles.
As one Tehran hairdresser told Tehran Bureau when asked about the conference and what effect it might have on her salon, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And I definitely don’t plan to anything differently than I am now.”