Control over Bodies: Transformation of a Religious Tradition into Law

Zahra Abedinezhad

“Amir Kabir University Uprising September 2022” by Darafsh. (CC BY-SA 4.0).

How much can a religious-political system control its citizens? The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) legally required the hijab in 1983. Later, in 1996 and 2014, amendments were made to the penal code of Iran, but this law remained in place. According to the note of Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code of Iran (2014), “Women who appear in public without a proper hijab should be imprisoned from ten days to two months or pay a fine from 50,000 to 500,000 Ryal.” The law does not define hijab, but Islamic jurisprudence and traditions require the entire female body to be covered in public, except the face and hands. On the surface, it appears that people’s religious tradition is supported officially. In the beginning, there were no policing efforts involved, hence, Iranians on the ground did not object to this law violating their rights to expression. In reality, however, IRI took advantage of women’s religious tradition to create a national Islamic symbol and misshaped the hijab tradition into a tool for the everyday control of bodies. 

When the government started to police hijabs and scarves through The Plan of Social Security Promotion, many lawyers and judges criticized the policing plan for violating citizens’ freedom and human rights. One of the primary criticisms of the plan is the intervention of the police as a part of the executive power in the hands of the legislative parliament, which is forbidden both by the Constitution of IRI and the separation of powers. The critiques were shut down when the supreme leader confirmed the policing plan. According to the plan, morality police must stop “bad hijab” women who do not follow the Islamic hijab completely. In other words, women without any hijabs receive legal punishment according to the penal code. However, when women do not follow a complete hijab (for example when some portion of the hair or body is not covered), they do not break the penal code; rather, it appears to be a style or a variation of hijab that has the potential to be addressed by law enforcement. Until 2019, when women with partial/bad hijab were stopped by morality police in public, they were sent to a “guidance” center to sign a “form of obligation,” which was a signed promise in which the women pledged not to repeat the violation. 

At the outset, the morality police were intended to be short-term; no serious legal punishment or sentence threatened women who did not follow the hijab rules fully, and promising speeches were made by presidential candidates to discontinue policing the hijab, although none took action. The final step to completing the policing plan was adding re-education centers to the morality police system in 2019. Thus, the policies of control have been added gradually to the system and over society. The new system (IRI) was founded following a revolution, and not intended to control religious customs. Instead, more controlling measures were added to surveil religious life because IRI authorities believe everybody has to conform with their “correct” religious practices, including hijab

Since there are no specified criteria or definitions in police instructions for the so-called “bad-hijab” women, morality police officers have endless discretion and power to stop and investigate women with different styles of hijab. Nothing guarantees that even women who think they are following the full hijab will not be questioned by the officers. In fact, their controlling regulations, in practice and on paper, seem to be purposefully vague. It is the state’s method of control to be nonspecific because it gives a lot of room for totalitarian surveillance and discretion. Ambiguity permits various interpretations by policemen justifying their stops and investigations of women. Therefore, the policemen’s actions become irrepressible, and women become subjects, always concerned about their appearance and religious ways of life.

Nothing guarantees that even women who think they are following the full hijab will not be questioned by the officers. In fact, their controlling regulations, in practice and on paper, seem to be purposefully vague.

Following the death of Mahsa Amini and successive protests in Iran in September 2022, some women have decided to appear without headscarves in public as performances of protest. Burning scarves or abstaining from them is pushing back on the political implications of hijab, though not necessarily rejecting a traditional-religious custom, because women have realized that the control process is now very codified, and may lead to severe consequences for not wearing a complete hijab. Many women also speak out by sharing their narratives of resistance and everyday struggles on social platforms.

These women create a community by sharing the story of their resistance and encouraging each other to be brave and continue to rebel against the oppressive rules. These are extraordinary moments because, despite the hesitancy and fear due to the presence of security or guards who want to control the situation, women are challenging authoritarianism daily. During times of protest, the authoritative system needs to control bodies in demonstrations. By violating hijab rules in ordinary situations, these women are breaking the full control of citizens applied by the system.

Segregation is another one of the methods that the government uses to control bodies. In addition to gender segregation, there is religious segregation between Sunni and Shia, ethnic segregation between Fars and non-Fars, and the IRI has constructed yet another dichotomy between religious and non-religious Shia, in terms of practice, from which it actively benefits. Extremist religious people practice their beliefs according to state mandates, but moderate or liberal religious people do not practice their religion as the state wants. The government encourages religious citizens to police the non-religious ones by stopping and reporting them. Liberal religious people, although practicing their Shia traditions, do not condone government control through religion. Interestingly, some women of this class symbolically and purposefully violate hijab rules to show their objection to making religion mandatory in recent protests. On the contrary, extremist religious people who support the state behave as non-official actors of control policies assisting the IRI to reinforce the practicing and non-practicing dichotomy for Shia. 

Persian-Dutch demonstration against the Iranian government, from PersianDutchNetwork. (CC BY-SA 4.0).

To understand how both uncertain criteria and segregation, as tools of control, worked in the specific case of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, paying attention to the interview with Mahsa’s father would be useful. Her father said, “Mahsa had told the officers, ‘for God’s sake let me go. I am from the provinces. I’m a stranger here. My brother is not more than 16-years-old; let me go. What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?’ but one of the officers pushes Mahsa and physically assaults her by various means.” Unclear on her violation, her question demonstrates that she did not believe she was wearing improper attire. With uncertain criteria that encourage discretion, police officers can stop women and investigate them, resulting in tragedies like Mahsa Amini’s death.

Furthermore, Mahsa’s identity as a Kurdish stranger should be considered. Kimberlé Crenshaw offers that gendered experience is shaped by age, race, class, and ability. Other Feminists, such as Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge in Intersectionality, argue that gender, race, and class cannot be understood as social processes independent of each other. We see intersecting identities of Mahsa when she was stopped: She was a Kurdish, middle-class woman and a “stranger” in Tehran. The IRI codes and policies treat the Kurdish community as a minority group so Kurds face a lot of injustice and discrimination regarding their human rights. When the ethnic minority position intersects with the womanhood of a person in a patriarchal society, violence and discrimination become heightened. It can’t be said what was in the minds of the police officers who stopped her, or whether Mahsa’s otherness was the reason for escalation because sometimes negotiating, compromising, and begging work to be released. Their violent approach seems unprovoked, which is why many people relate themselves to this tragedy. They empathize with her, knowing that it could’ve been any woman paying this severe and highly inappropriate price for breaking this oppressive law. 

 While uncertainties and vagueness make everyday life unbearable for Iranian citizens, these features make a totalitarian system proceed with its goal — control. The history of the hijab in Iran shows how authorities in power consistently change dress regulations for their political agenda. The first king of the Pahlavi era enacted the “Unveiling Code on January 8, 1936, which prohibited Iranian women from covering themselves with a headcover or veil in public. According to historians such as Houchang Chehabi, Pahlavi’s national agenda was an attempt to “modernize” the country by making the appearances of people and their ways of life identical to Europeans. Because of the mandatory code, many Iranian women imprisoned themselves in their homes for fear of being revealed on the streets by Reza Shah’s soldiers, who pulled off the veils and chadors of women on the streets and in public. Comparing this history, women rebelled against the “Unveiling Code” then, and contemporary Iranian women in the street and online spaces protest mandatory hijab codes as one of the symbols of the religious system. We can conclude that Iranian protesters seek freedom of speech and expression without the intervention of the state into their realms of religious folklife. They are tired of the pressures imposed on their bodies by authorities of power playing with traditions related to dress as political tools. ♦

Zahra Abedinezhad is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Studies and Folklore at The Ohio State University. Her interdisciplinary research areas focus on religious performances and resistance culture.

Recommended Citation

Abedinezhad, Zahra. “Control over Bodies: Transformation of a Religious Tradition into Law.” Canopy Forum, June 20, 2023.