Iran’s new hijab crackdown risks reviving campus unrest

Reversing the gains made by the protests against a woman’s death in police custody could see the nation erupt again, says Roohola Ramezani

June 2, 2024
A woman in Tehran wearing a hijab
Source: iStock/Grigorev_Vladimir

Iran’s president may have died in a helicopter crash last month, but the hardline policies he supported alongside the country’s supreme leader are likely to live on.

The latest example of those is a series of measures called Nour (meaning “Light”), aimed at forcing women to revert to traditional dress standards.

The Mahsa movement, sparked by the death of  Mahsa Amini in 2022 after her arrest by the morality police for not wearing her hijab correctly, was thought to have led to a permanent relaxation in standards. Students were at the forefront of the mass protests, and, in their wake, female students “would dress as we liked and no one could hold us back”, Mahshid, a student at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, told me.

But it seems that the morality police are making their presence felt again, including on campuses. Indeed, according to student reports, campus environments are now noticeably changed, with the morality police and university security guards on every corner. “Sometimes a member of the morality police will enter right in the middle of the class time and command us to observe the hijab,” Mahshid says.

This has inevitably led to flashpoints. Many students don’t publicise their experiences under their own name, being fearful of possible consequences. However, in a recent case, a student of Tehran’s Allameh Tabataba’i University tweeted that a security guard “debarred me from entering and even leaving the campus, saying that my shorts were too short. In his office, the guy kept threatening me, saying that he would deal with me thoroughly.” The Persian wording also has a sexual connotation, and the student went on to say that she was “terrified of what exactly he was going to do with me”.

Unfortunately, she attached her own photo to the tweet (in which she appeared to be crying), making it easy for the authorities to identify her. Unsurprisingly, therefore, she posted another tweet a few days later denying that the incident ever happened, apologising to campus security and affirming that she will observe Islamic codes.

Students are put under pressure in a variety of ways. Many report that their ID cards have been seized by the security guards, or their names have been noted down. According to other reports, some women have even been expelled from university dormitories because of the way they were dressed. That is just cruel: students who register for dormitories usually cannot afford other kinds of accommodation, so they have nowhere else to go. Hence, students threatened with dormitory eviction have no choice but to toe the line and wear a hijab. Those who disobey may also be fined under the Nour measures.

Universities are starting to put new restrictions on students’ online life, too. For example, students at Tehran’s K. N. Toosi University of Technology are now banned from using “illegal” social media platforms. The platforms that are filtered by the government are considered illegal in Iran, including all the popular ones, such as Facebook, X, Instagram, YouTube and Telegram, but some politicians themselves have accounts on those platforms.

K. N. Toosi students also have to get authorisation if they want to form any internet group with over 100 members. The aim is to control the spread of information. All the main Iranian universities used to have news channels on Telegram, for instance, but almost all have been closed by officials.

The Nour policy is not considered likely to succeed in reversing the gains won during the Mahsa movement. However, a major concern is that the crackdown will result in a new wave of campus protests and more arrests and police violence against students. This could ignite a fire across the nation. Indeed, the impression I get from social media is that the situation is already escalating. 

Why the government is taking this risk is not clear. Perhaps it is trying to play to the radical end of its support base. Or perhaps it wants to provoke a new uproar to distract from the country’s disastrous economy. Either way, “light” is unlikely to be the result.   

Roohola Ramezani has a PhD in philosophy from Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. He was formerly a research fellow at the IFK International Research Centre for Cultural Studies in Vienna.

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