Iran’s Hijab-Industrial Complex

The Islamic Republic spends untold millions enforcing women’s use of the head covering despite grueling economic sanctions

Iran’s Hijab-Industrial Complex
In Tehran, people protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022. (Getty Images)

The Iranian government is handicapped by unrelenting sanctions that do not look as though they are going away anytime soon. The country’s economic paralysis is compounded by the inadequacies of a squad of callow officials and corrupt functionaries, whose nepotism triggers frequent scandals these days. While the sanctions have almost irreversibly insulated the national economy from the outside world and rendered Iran’s banking and financial sectors irrelevant, the iron-fisted establishment has been unable to tame its top-tier white collar professionals’ greed and deter them from siphoning off what is left of the nation’s wealth. It banks only on people’s short memory spans and the media’s tied hands in covering corruption so that these debacles are forgotten before long.

In one recent instance that has generated national fury, it was revealed by an activist that a 350-acre endowment in the city of Qazvin, which includes a historical mansion constructed in 1859, had been leased to the daughter-in-law of Seyed Mehdi Khamoushi, a senior cleric and head of the well-heeled Awqaf and Charity Affairs Organization, for a mere $20 per month. The lease agreement was signed in 2018, but the authorities had kept the story under wraps until a Twitter user blew the whistle on it. The explosive disclosure has once more brought the conundrum of lingering corruption in the Islamic Republic to light.

Yet it appears the cash-starved economy on the brink of implosion has more than enough funds to bankroll a domestic blitzkrieg aimed at saddling half of the population with a political preference: compulsory hijab. To be sure, for a majority of Muslim women, wearing the hijab is a personal choice inspired by their religious convictions, but in contemporary Iran, the government doesn’t view this decision that way. It mandates compliance as a guardrail that ensures its supremacy and has intertwined the policing of women’s dress with its identity, something that some officials have also blurted out sporadically, which is why it resorts to coercion to compel scores of women, against their will, to put on the Islamic head covering.

Over time, an entire “hijab-industrial complex” has taken shape that the leadership considers a perk of its governance, squandering a bulk of its cultural resources that ideally should go to empowering motion pictures, music, publishing houses, education and a diverse media landscape.

Researchers, based on deductions and available data, have estimated that the Iranian government may be spending as much as $178 million on police enforcement as well as publicity – and agitprop – for compulsory hijab-wearing, while the costs borne by women as a result of the mandate may run up to $707 million. These expenses exclude what is being paid to thousands of private security personnel and vigilantes who are responsible for enforcing the hijab rules directly or indirectly at different public spaces. With the U.S. dollar valued at roughly 500,000 Iranian rials, these payouts are not trivial.

The cultural war to regulate women’s appearance is not a recent phenomenon or one that the government is inexperienced with, but it is certainly the case that the administration of the ultra-orthodox President Ebrahim Raisi has taken the severity of the compulsory hijab project to a whole new level, making it arguably its number one agenda item. The vast array of resources pledged to this cause points to why the hijab dilemma is a burning issue for the ruling elite, one that has consumed not only the nation’s capital but its attention too.

As the conventional wisdom goes, immoderation often backfires, and Raisi’s excesses in inflating the strength of the now-defunct morality police culminated in the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last September, which then pushed the country to the precipice with the eruption of a seismic protest movement that endured for months.

Although Iranians by and large expected such a reactionary figure as Raisi to initiate a high-octane thrust to enforce the hijab when elected to office, eyeing the renewal of the vibe of the early 1980s in Iran characterized by fresh revolutionary zeal, that did not dissuade them from boycotting the 2021 presidential polls. In what became the most uncompetitive race in the history of the Islamic Republic, the uncompromising cleric was named president to succeed the pro-reform Hassan Rouhani.

Although a moderate, Rouhani was also a conformist, who nonetheless still did not allow the hidebound forces of the national security apparatus to wage an unbridled war on women. The hijab remained mandatory under Rouhani, not because he didn’t want to repeal it but because this was the territory of his boss, the supreme leader, to decide on. Yet, the centrist “diplomat sheikh” conducted himself so that the abiding hijab bone of contention didn’t translate into an internecine national conflict.

Last July, as the ex officio chairman of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, Raisi issued an order instructing 26 government agencies to roll out new plans for “hijab and chastity,” which included increased policing in public spaces and stiffened rules of dress in government offices. Under his watch, a powerful religious entity known as the Initiative for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was given a budget of $23.6 million. Its sole focus is rigidifying the hijab mandate.

However, the hardline policies that were formulated to make Iranian society a more conservative and obedient collective and, in particular, keep progressive women in check produced the exact opposite effect after last year’s protests. Thousands of women across Iranian cities have now nixed the mandatory headscarves altogether, risking fines and social ostracization, only to assert their stifled identities and defy the patriarchal dogmas.

Many Iranians no longer buy into the official narrative that the government’s fight to uphold the hijab tooth and nail has anything to do with the religious fabric of the Islamic Republic or is anchored in a sincere espousal of Islamic principles. First, there are now more candid conversations about the government’s preoccupation with enforcing the hijab while the concept is neither one of the five pillars of Shiite Islam nor one of the 10 ancillaries of the faith. Still, the senior leadership treats the matter with such urgency, as though it were the quintessential foundation of theology, without which an Armageddon would be inevitable.

In 2020, Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, the spokesman of the Iranian Armed Forces, said that the hijab is a divine matter and that those who defy it act “as if they have stood up to God.” A couple of years later, Kazem Seddiqi, a senior cleric and the Friday prayer leader of Tehran, went as far as to say that women’s refusal to observe the hijab strictly “is the cause of some unexpected disasters according to our [religious] anecdotes” resulting in fornication, which in turn triggers earthquakes. Ahmad Alamolhoda, a singular face of fundamentalism in Iran and the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, fulminates against women almost every week. In April 2022, he said opposition to hijab codes is induced by “the enemy’s strategic infiltration, and if it is proliferated, young people will be deprived of religion.”

Regardless of the toxic rhetoric of persuasion and intimidation urging women to comply with the hijab rules, people are venturing to ask forthright questions about the actual compliance of Iran’s puritanical government with the definitive ethics of Islam. Does an entirely usurious banking system resemble anything Islamic? Are charitable endowments designed to offset the burden of the most vulnerable or merely serve as conduits of financial enrichment for their state-backed patrons? Are government officials allowed to be questioned by their constituents and ever held up to the standards of honesty and integrity? Is there any resolve to penalize widespread theft and embezzlement, major sins in Islamic philosophy, that are at present routine in state agencies?

State-condoned corruption in modern-day Iran runs the gamut from the offspring of government authorities making fortunes from their fathers’ access to public funds to cronyism catapulting unqualified executives to senior positions. The nation’s most senior lawmaker, Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, is trailed by a legacy of countless corruption cases, for which he was never convicted, mostly courtesy of his military background as a top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, affording him impunity. As the then mayor of Tehran, he had greenlighted $1.2 million from municipal coffers to be earmarked for a religious charity run by his wife. In 2016, the General Inspection Office accused him of “bribery, embezzlement, fraud and wasting of public property” to the tune of $44 million.

Several of the current ministers in Raisi’s administration are believed to have deceived members of Parliament during confirmation hearings by presenting forged educational credentials. Mehrdad Bazrpash, the current minister of roads and urban development, is widely believed to have been involved in plagiarism as a Ph.D. student, and large chunks of his thesis are documented to have been copied from other sources. He was eventually awarded a degree and then became a university professor. The impropriety didn’t thwart his path to becoming a government minister at age 42. These glaring malpractices and insincerities apparently do not count as vices the Islamic Republic should tackle so as to institute Islamic purity.

As a matter of fact, the government has long shed even a hypothetical commitment to the essence of Islam and is solely fixated on preserving an Islamic facade so that, in a civilizational battle with the West, which it claims is in decline, it can capitalize on an extraneous distinction to appear exceptional. When it comes to the compulsory hijab, there is also a political element at play: The Iranian government perceives the hijab battlefield as a catalyst of its dominance over the restive masses, a propeller of its perpetuity and a red line it doesn’t wish to see crossed so that it’s not required to make new concessions on civil liberties. This way of thinking is a distillation of the different rationales that make it not only palatable, but even vital, for the Islamic Republic to make whopping investments in its crusade to enforce hijab.

A detailed breakdown of the budgets allotted to hijab publicity and enforcement has never been made available by the government or the blend of institutions that are paid to further this divisive evangelism. Understandably, the system does not want to multiply the people’s wrath by letting them know how much it is splurging to instruct them what to wear and the coercion it finances if they don’t comply.

Yet, as Iran’s society becomes increasingly bifurcated over who is right and who is wrong on this fault line, and while the government pushes the notion of chastity to flex muscles and cheer up its most radical supporters, numbers are beginning to play a more illuminating role. Estimates and explanations are undermining the nebulousness Iran has tried to preserve about how much money it’s putting into regulating women’s dressing choices.

Iran Open Data, a data transparency and fact-checking project, has released a conservative estimate suggesting that, on average, a total of 89 trillion rials, equivalent to $178 million, is shelled out by the Islamic Republic on hijab publicity and enforcement per year. A motley crew of 27 government agencies, including the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Sport and Youth, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Islamic Development Organization, religious seminaries and law enforcement have been assigned responsibilities directly related to propagandizing and enacting the hijab codes. It’s estimated that if only 10% of the running budget of the cultural organizations, 5% of the expenditure of the law enforcement and 0.5% of the allowances of educational and public sector institutions are expended on promoting the hijab mandate, the taxpayers’ share of this campaign will exceed $178 million.

In the minimalist scenario, if only 1% of the budget earmarked for cultural organizations and the police by the government and one thousandth of the funds dedicated to educational and public sector institutions were set aside for proselytizing hijab, the price tag for this ambitious enterprise would be roughly $31 million. It is a given that what the government is investing in this reputational battle cannot be easily measured because of the diversity and complexity of institutions, task forces and stakeholders who are in charge of furthering the project.

We don’t know for sure what the criteria are for specifying the percentages the way they are estimated. It is reasonable, though, to assume that with the all-out pressure different government bodies have been exerting to administer the hijab mandate, this is a pursuit on which they are willing to lavish resources. When the preponderance of the public discourses pushed by these cultural organizations is pivoted on the hijab compulsion and no other priority, and when the lion’s share of their products pertains to the same subject matter, then one can conclude that they are putting their money where their mouth is.

All government ministries and their provincial departments, municipalities across the country, the cultural wings of military organizations, religious entities and thousands of nominal NGOs that are in fact tied to the state and have mushroomed in the recent years, run their own hijab campaigns and are not limited by any audit or scrutiny on how much they can spend on the endeavor.

Rouhollah Harizavi, the cultural vice president of the Islamic Development Organization, the primary religious institution in Iran and with an annual budget of $31 million, announced recently that a total of 1,200 “programs” are underway nationwide centered on the imperative of hijab. These programs can take the form of conferences, contests, exhibitions, shows, talks and other events. On average, every event of this nature, if small and modest, can be conducted with about $1,000 of funding, even though that’s not at all a maximal approximation. This means the institution is spending $1.2 million alone to roll out hijab advertisements this year.

There are more hidden costs to the enactment of the hijab strictures. Iran Open Data has tried to calculate the expenses incurred by Iranian women to purchase the official clothing the government requires them to wear in public, which includes headscarves, a long cloak known as a “manteau,” a uniform headgear called “maqnae” that the employees of government and some private sector organizations are supposed to don, and for some women, a black chador. They shop for these items several times a year, and the bottom line is that aggregately, more than 31 million women ages 15 and older spend upward of $707 million on buying garments that the government tells them they should have on but is neither paying for nor subsidizing.

In 2017, Nemat Ahmadi, a senior lawyer, argued that the annual hijab publicity budget was about 60 trillion rials, or $120 million. If that figure happens to be accurate, it should be expected that the outlays today are much more exorbitant, given that a hardline president has put what was regular government messaging on steroids. In the new legislation that is being hashed out at the parliament, substantial penalties are foreseen for women who refuse to comply with the government dress code. This will of course evolve into a new stream of revenue for the state and replicate the money in circulation in the compulsory hijab enterprise. Add to these numbers the wages of individuals hired by different organizations to enforce hijab in places such as metro, museums, concert halls, shopping centers and university campuses, and it would be easy to infer the turnovers of lifestyle modification are not negligible.

On the surface, the government’s mania for ordaining the minutiae of people’s daily lives, including women’s dressing, is a burden that saps its resources and impairs its political credit score. But this fixation has been remodeled into one of the several ways the Islamic Republic keeps choruses of people employed or otherwise “occupied.” The number of self-directed vigilantes and militia members who are whipped up to take on women in the streets and admonish them for some strands of hair peeking out of a headscarf is astounding. Whether they are paid to engage in this kind of persecution or do so only owing to their ideological fantasies, they are kept busy with a cause, which at any rate, is not being critical thinkers challenging the status quo induced by the state.

To make its discourse on hijab compulsion seem less anachronistic and more aligned with the realities of life in the 21st century, the Islamic Republic has recruited pundits and speakers who are tasked with theorizing the mandate and eviscerating it of its discriminatory reputation by spreading misleading information on how secular countries also police people’s dressing style. Oxford and Harvard are named by some of these uncharismatic ideologues as universities where students are required to adhere to strict dress codes. Of course, students at these schools or anyone who has walked around the campuses can pass a judgment on how preposterous such assertions are. However, there are always people who can easily be deceived.

Indeed, the indoctrination that universities in Western democracies restrict their students’ dressing has become so appealing to the clerical establishment that an entire book of 168 pages was released in 2019 by a publishing house affiliated with the office of the supreme leader’s representative in academic institutions, titled “A Glance at the Student Dress Code in the Universities of the World.”

Data gleaned from unverifiable sources, flawed translations and deliberate manipulation of facts constitute the backbone of such materials that are published or included in speeches delivered with similar insinuations. In one instance, the official graduation gown the Arkansas State University instructs its students to don during the commencement was cited as the university’s regular dress code by a radical commentator, who then went on to opine on how conservative the students’ clothing can be at a U.S. university.

The production of false knowledge about why their hijab idiosyncrasy is a universally accepted conviction also includes concocting statements unethically attributed to luminaries who the cultural administrators in Iran allege have commented on the subject. Banners and promotional materials have popped up across Iranian cities and in public spaces with quotes by Alfred Hitchcock, Jules Verne, Charles Spencer Chaplin and Leo Tolstoy praising the idea of hijab. Through these short-sighted inculcations, the authorities have clearly betrayed millions of women in Iran and elsewhere who choose to wear hijab of their own volition and slighted those who don’t believe they should follow this religious recommendation.

There aren’t so many pressing issues the Iranian government prosecutes with the same passion and commitment as it does the perpetuation of compulsory hijab. This is not what governments and parliaments are supposed to do. Iran would have been in a much better shape economically and politically if it had been willing to allocate its resources and capital to compete with its neighboring countries in realms such as sustainable development, education, health care, green technologies, transportation, smart cities and industrialization.

For an electorate that has been crushed under the sanctions and mismanagement at home, the sight of so much money being consumed by the government to micromanage their lifestyle is certainly unsavory. When running into huge billboards springing up in cities and before theaters, hospitals, malls and airports educating them about proper Islamic attire, young Iranians rush to comparisons, conjuring up other Islamic countries like Turkey, Oman, Malaysia and United Arab Emirates, where the governments don’t deem it to be their business lecturing people incessantly about what to wear. Many of them are already drawing more far-fetched analogies, invoking freedoms that individuals enjoy in the West — where a growing number of the children of the Islamic Republic ruling elite are ending up pursuing their happiness.

The hijab economy may be beneficial to some of those involved in it, for example the fashion industry practitioners who continue to monopolize people’s clothing options in the absence of what cannot be made available to them. But it is eventually a liability for the state that is finding its cultural narrative increasingly alienating. The Islamic Republic can make a wise decision to decouple itself from those delusions and embrace a reconciliation with its citizens by starting to respond to their needs rather than serving its misplaced priorities. Until it makes that decision, daily debates and, sadly, skirmishes over hijab compliance will continue.

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