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The Hijab Controversy

Oct 03, 2022
  • He Wenping

    Senior Research Fellow, Charhar Institute and West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

A small piece of a woman’s hijab sparked the largest wave of mass protests in Iran in three years. On Sept.13, a young Iranian named Mahsa Amini, 22, was arrested by Iran’s morality police at a subway station in Tehran for not wearing her hijab properly. Amini died after a few days in custody.

The incident sparked outrage among the Iranian public. Protests were reported to have quickly spread from the woman’s home province of Kurdistan to some 50 cities in Iran, with police vehicles being overturned and set on fire. At least 41 people have been killed in the weeklong protests, which escalated from the hijab issue to become an anti-government incident, targeting the current Iranian regime.

The Iranian police, a direct party to the hijab incident, responded by repeatedly claiming that Amini was not beaten or mistreated and that her death could have been caused by her own illness, such as a heart attack. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also sent his aides to extend condolences to Amini’s family. Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, who was attending the UN General Assembly in New York, ordered a thorough investigation into Amini’s death, saying he contacted her family as soon as he could. Raisi also stressed that Iran has freedom of expression, but said that arson and other acts of chaos are unacceptable as he criticized the double standard of the West. He said the United States and United Kingdom had seen many deaths in connection with suspected abuses by law enforcement officers and noted that few of the incidents had been seriously investigated, let alone characterized as anti-government.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced on Sept. 22, the sixth day of protests, that it was imposing sanctions on Iran’s morality police in connection with the hijab incident and involving seven senior Iranian military officers and national security officials. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Amini’s death was another atrocity committed by the Iranian regime’s security forces against their own people and that U.S. sanctions demonstrate that the Biden administration is clearly committed to defending women’s rights — and human rights in general — in Iran and beyond. She called on the Iranian government to end violence against women and the ongoing violent repression of freedom of speech and assembly.

In addition, when the Iranian government cut off internet service to parts of the country to prevent further riots, Secretary of State Antony Blinken quickly announced that the U.S. government had taken steps to allow technology companies to help the Iranian people access information online. According to the Treasury Department, U.S. companies are now allowed to provide ordinary Iranians with services such as social media platforms, collaboration platforms, video conferencing and cloud-based services to assist them in resisting government disconnections.

Moreover, as the hijab incident intensified, CNN senior anchorwoman Christiane Amanpour tweeted on Sept. 22 that President Raisi had temporarily canceled an exclusive interview with her because she refused to wear a hijab. The hijab incident seems to have taken the conservatism of Iran’s leaders one step further by requiring a female American journalist to wear a hijab during an interview on U.S. soil.

The reaction of the U.S. and Iran to the hijab incident is actually a new chapter in the broader context of the U.S.-Iran rivalry.

The recent downturn in U.S.-Iran relations arises from two background factors, starting with the long-delayed negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. There have been as many as eight rounds of negotiations since Joe Biden’s election, but they have always stalled after news that a deal was near — usually with the Iranian side accusing the United States of lacking good faith and not lifting all sanctions against Iran, and the U.S. accusing Iran of undermining negotiating efforts by making extraneous changes and increasing its demands.

Moreover, nuclear negotiations have been delayed again and again, and their significance as a diplomatic victory for the Democrats in the U.S. midterm elections has been diluted by Iran’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Second, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the biggest geopolitical conflict in the world at the moment, plays a role. Just as it did after 9/11, when the U.S. classified friends and foes by whether they were “anti-terrorist,” the U.S. and NATO NOW judge relations with other countries by whether they join sanctions against Russia and “draw a clear line.” Iran recently joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and a Russian-Chinese initiative, and it has provided Russia with a large number of drones.

There are rumors that Iran will provide Russia with a thousand drones, but the Iranian side denies this. Ukraine claims to have shot down eight Iranian drones used by Russian forces and announced a downgrade of diplomatic relations with Iran as a result, which naturally strengthens U.S. strategic suspicions and suppression of Iran. When the hijab protests broke out in Iran, a new round of U.S.-Iran rivalry was a natural consequence.

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