A growing number of women in Iran are refusing to wear a hijab while driving, sparking a nationwide debate about whether a car is a private space where they can dress more freely.
Obligatory wearing of the hijab has been an integral policy of the Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution but it is one the establishment has had a great deal of difficulty enforcing. Many Iranian women are already pushing the boundaries, and observers in Tehran say women who drive with their headscarves resting on their shoulders are becoming a familiar sight.
Clashes between women and Iran’s morality police particularly increase in the summer when temperatures rise. But even though the police regularly stop these drivers, fining them or even temporarily seizing their vehicle, such acts of resistance have continued, infuriating hardliners over a long-standing policy they have had a great deal of difficulty enforcing.
Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, has argued that people’s private space should be respected and opposes a crackdown on women who don’t wear the hijab. He said explicitly that the police’s job is not to administer Islam. Speaking in 2015, Rouhani said: “The police can’t do something and say I’m doing this because God said so. That’s not a police [officer]’s business.”
Many in Iran believe that private space includes the inside of a car, but judicial authorities and the police have opposed that interpretation.
“The invisible part of the car, such as the trunk, is a private space, but this does not apply to the visible parts of the car,” Hadi Sadeghi, the deputy head of Iran’s judiciary chief, said last week.
His comments have prompted widespread reaction online, with one user posting a satirical picture showing a couple embracing in a car boot. Another user tweeted: “The police have said that only the boot is a private space… poor those of us who have a hatchback car [without a boot]… we don’t have any private space.”
Local media often refrain from directly criticising the mandatory hijab, but the debate over what constitutes a private space has allowed newspapers and even state news agencies to publish articles reflecting views from both sides.
“Private or not private?” asked an article carried by the state Irna news agency on Monday. “This is a question that has created a legal and religious discussion about private space within cars.”
Hossein Ahmadiniaz, a lawyer, told Irna that infringing on people’s private spaces was like infringing their citizen’s rights, arguing that it was up to parliamentarians to define the private space and not the police.
“The law says that the space within a car is a private space,” he said. “The government’s citizen’s rights charter [launched by Rouhani] also considers a car to be a private space and it is incumbent upon enforcers to respect that.”
Bahman Keshavarz, a leading lawyer, wrote an article in the reformist Shargh daily, arguing that wearing a so-called “bad hijab” (loose hijab) is not a crime under Iranian law.
Saeid Montazeralmahdi, a spokesperson for the Iranian police, disagreed. “What is visible to the public eye is not private space and norms and the rules should be respected within cars.” He also warned car owners against using tinted glass to prevent onlookers from seeing into the car.
The debate is not only among liberal Iranians. Abolfazl Najafi Tehrani, a cleric based in Tehran, tweeted: “People’s cars, like people’s houses, are their property and a private space and infringing upon this space will disturb people’s moral security and will harm women’s trust with the police.”
Yahya Kamalpour, a member of the Iranian parliament, said: “The space within people’s cars is a private space and the police has no right to enter that space without a judicial order.”
The debate comes amid a growing rift between the government and the hardline judiciary that acts independently of Rouhani’s government.
Despite restrictions, women are increasingly active in Iranian society. It emerged on Sunday that Iran Air, the country’s national airline, has for the first time appointed a female CEO. Rouhani is also under pressure from his voter base to nominate a record number of female ministers in his cabinet reshuffle next month.
In a sign of slowly changing attitudes, Ali Karimi, a veteran Iranian footballer, on Monday called on the authorities to allow female fans to attend stadiums alongside men.