The Veil Ban in Iran

🇩🇪 🇳🇱 The tendency of authorities to interfere with women’s clothing is well known. Mostly they want to cover more of the female body, but sometimes it has to be less. Long before the burka and burkini bans in Western Europe, the Iranian Emperor Reza Shah decreed in 1936 that women should abandon their chador and dress in western style. And not only that, they also were supposed to socialise with men. At celebrations and public events, civil servants were obliged to appear with their ladies in formal western dress to be a role model to others. This was supervised and penalties could be imposed. At parties, for example, women were not allowed to sit on one side and men on the other, and women should not just talk to their own husbands. In the streets, the police checked on female dress and did not hesitate to forcibly rob women of their chador. As a matter of fact, in those days there were only male police officers. When women resorted to long dresses and headscarves, these were also banned.

Ceremony of the abolition of the veil, 1936

Modernist circles were pleased with the unveiling and in the North of Iran, which was influenced by Russia, it was easily accepted. For the conservative sections of the population, however, the implementation of the decree was a disaster. Women no longer dared to leave their houses, and if they did, they would be harassed by the neighbourhood boys. Apparently, nobody had thought of the consequences of the new regulations. In the south, some women fled to Iraq. Many others decided to stay completely at home; some committed suicide. But in this period, since the houses had no bath, people used public bathhouses and that was no longer possible. Always having to rely on washing at home was not pleasant; moreover, taking a bath is often also a religious duty. The police knew the needs of the women and therefore patrolled the bathhouses, where they might catch a veiled woman. Reza Baraheni (1935—) recounted that his father used to carry his wife and his mother to the bathhouse in a sack. One day a policeman became suspicious and asked what those bags contained. Pistachios, he answered. The policeman wanted to check it and fingered the bag. The mother, who was ticklish, could not restrain her laughter and the porter was arrested. Baraheni is a writer, so the story could well be fiction — but it’s a nice motif.

The mandatory parties were not really fun either, especially not on winter evenings. In the draughty, unheated halls, the women were cold in their sleeveless, décolleté dresses. Therefore, they sometimes wore heavy winter coats over them. When a man did not want to bother his wife with all this, he might marry some other woman for the duration of the event, maybe a prostitute. A temporary marriage, even for a few hours, is a possibility offered by Iranian law—even today. In this way he could attend the party with a wife, while he left his real wife at home.

Prostitutes were, by the way, the only women who were allowed to completely cover themselves, or they indeed had to. By this means the government tried to make people understand how despicable the veil was.

The veil ban also led to diplomatic tensions with Great Britain, which defended the right of veiled ladies from British India to visit Iran.

In 1941 Reza Shah resigned under British-Russian pressure and then everything returned to normal. Two years later, the veil was declared a matter of personal choice.

H.E. Chehabi, ‘The Banning of the Veil and its Consequences,’ in: Stephanie Cronin (ed.), The Making of modern Iran. State and Society under Riza Shah, 1921–1941, London/New York 2003, 193–210.

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