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Iran: Does wearing the hijab help women's careers?

Kaukab Shairani
May 3, 2022

Iranian women who rebel against mandatory wearing of hijabs say they are being discriminated against in the workplace.

Women in hijab while talking on phones
By law, women in Iran must wear a hijab while in public spacesImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

"Sometimes I take my hijab off accidentally, but my bosses gave me a notice to put it back. Men have the freedom to choose what they want, but women don't," Farzana (name changed) told DW.

The 22-year-old private sector employee in the Iranian city of Shiraz described it as having a "double life" in the workplace.

In Iran, mandatory hijab wearing was imposed several years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Under the law, women must cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothes in all public places, including the workplace and at school and university. The mandate is enforced by so-called morality guards.

But there has been increasing resentment towards the hijab mandate, particularly among the younger generation and in urban areas.

Those opposed view it as a politically coercive tool that controls women's bodies. Iran has seen a wave of protests against the hijab in recent years, such as the White Wednesdays movement.

As the backlash against veiling grows, so has a crackdown on those breaking the rules.

In a first, a university in the capital Tehran deployed so-called morality guards on campus, to ensure that students comply with the hijab rules, a London-based Iranian International broadcaster reported in April.

As more women like Farzana flout the ban at work and elsewhere, some women have said rebelling could be putting their career at a disadvantage. 

Hijab compliance helps women's careers

Complying with hijab rules means that women evade a fine or arrest, but wearing one also carries other benefits for women's careers. 

"If you are properly veiled, you can work in this industry and make money because the government will put its weight [behind you] and allocate budgets," Anna Amir, an Iranian documentary filmmaker, told DW

Masih Alinejad opposes Iran’s compulsory veiling laws

Another Iranian woman, 26, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained that correct veiling was a top priority. 

"In Iran, all they care about is your hijab … You could be the top student in university, but you could be banned over [not wearing] the hijab," she said. 

Working under these conditions, for her, turned the workplace into "a prison."

Claudia Yaghoobi, Roshan Associate Professor and Director of Persian Studies at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, agreed with these anecdotal experiences.

Those who are "properly" veiled could have employment opportunities with great benefits, she told DW. 

Renewed interest in hijab mandate

Time could play a role in how important it is to veil or not, including at work.

There have always been politically motivated fluctuations in the extent of clampdowns. In recent years, the compulsory hijab debate has seen a renewed focus.

When the government is focusing on other policies, morality guards become lax and therefore overlook "improper" veiling, Yaghoobi said.

"At other times, it [the clampdown] can be a stricter, militarized type of treatment." 

However, the type of workplace is a factor too, with hijab compliance more tightly patrolled in the public sector.

According to Kourosh Ziabari, Iran Correspondent of Asia Times and the 2022 World Press Institute fellow, the veil mandate "is more stringent in government departments."  

Veil mandates harm diversity of opinions 

While veiling may help a career, filmmaker Amir said she rejects what she terms as a maneuver to "license" women's bodies and continues to try and work without government support.

Other disadvantages of the veil mandate may be less immediate. Yaghoobi views the exclusion of secular women from the workplace as having a negative impact as it reduces the diversity of women's voices.

Fighting Iran's strict hijab rules

"Women's voices are not being heard … and ideas aren't being implemented if they can't enter [offices] as secular women, who are improperly veiled," she said. 

"From a year or two ago, elementary school children's books contained pictures of either women who were fully veiled or [their photos] had been eliminated," she told DW.  

It also appears unlikely that the advantages experienced by women who veil would overcome ingrained workplace and societal discrimination of women in Iran. 

The 2021 Global Gender Gap report, produced by the World Economic Forum, ranks Iran 150 out of 156 for gender equality, including equality in economic participation.

Are all Iranian women against mandatory veiling? 

A 2021 report published by the Iranian government showed an almost 50/50 split in support for the law among the population.

Older women are believed to be more supportive of the hijab mandate than the younger generation.

"They dress conservatively and consider that to be their Islamic principle … They support these principles for the workplace and demand the government reinforce hijab more severely because the debauchery is promoting immorality in society," Ziabari said. 

DW reached out to Iran's pro-hijab factions, including a state-run broadcaster, for comment, but did not receive a response. 

Edited by: Kate Martyr