By: Naimeh Doostar
“Trampling all over diplomatic etiquette”, “complete disregard for hijab laws in Iran” and “ridiculing human and Islamic values” are some of the ways conservative groups have viewed the visit to Iran by Dutch politician Marietje Schaake and her meeting with the speaker of Iran’s Parliament, Ali Larijani.
Iran’s homegrown extremists could not pass quietly over the photos of the meeting between Larijani and Schaake, who is in Iran with a delegation of European Parliament representatives. Iranian diplomacy has managed in the past 30 odd years to impose its hijab laws on foreign female diplomats visiting Iran, and there was no resistance from those women; if perhaps there was some resistance, it was reined in through insistence and mediation in favour of political expedience.
Another female diplomat who was often criticized by Iranian conservatives for her attire at meetings with Iranians is former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. She was even criticized when she met with Iranian officials outside Iran.
In 2011, during the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 in Istanbul, photos of Ashton with the head of the Iranian delegation, Saeed Jalili, were altered to lift Ashton’s collar higher to cover more of her chest and neck. While Ashton’s spokesperson protested the move, Ashton went on to follow a more conservative taste in attire during meetings with Iranian officials, she maintained a good distance from Iranian men and even held her hands behind her back to minimize criticism.
Not everyone chooses the path of conformity. In February of 2014, a number of media outlets quoted Jahan News saying Emma Bonino, the Italian foreign minister, had resisted covering her hair during a trip to Iran after her plane landed in Tehran. According to Jahan News, Bonino said: “How come Iranian officials do not attend our receptions because we serve alcohol, so I am not willing to give in to this restriction either.”
The report goes on to add that foreign ministry representatives got instructions from Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, who explained that compliance with hijab is a part of the ceremonial protocols for female diplomats visiting Iran, and if she did not abide by them, all of her scheduled appointments would be cancelled. Reportedly, Benino reluctantly covered her hair and left the plane.
Another report on Bonino’s visit, on the Khordad website, says, however, that the Italian foreign minister left the plane without hijab, and she and a female companion in her delegation entered the airport without hijab and arrived at their hotel in the same fashion.
Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign minister, is another prominent political figure who visited Iran. In April of 2015, she met with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian President Hassan Rohani, and Ali Akbar Velayati, the Supreme Leader’s advisor on foreign policy matters. This was the first trip to Iran in a decade for a high-ranking Australian diplomat.
A number of Iranian women’s rights activists had urged Bishop not to cover her hair while visiting Iran. Bishop donned a hat on her headscarf at Tehran Airport, and still some conservative media outlets fussed over it, saying she had not “completely complied with hijab requirements”. Bishop responded to the criticism from activists, saying: “This is our first visit to Iran in 12 years and I do not want to make it our last.”
Every time a female foreign diplomat travels to Iran, the event becomes a source of extensive media coverage. The Rohani administration has been accused of compromising on the issue of hijab in connection with foreign female dignitaries. Critics want visits from these women to be cancelled for non-compliance and they demand greater strictness from the foreign ministry.
In the latest episode, Tehran MP Mehdi Kouchkzadeh was one of the first people to slam the outfit chosen by Marietje Schaake, saying pictures of her visit with Ali Larijani, the head of Parliament, and Alieddin Boroujerdi, the head of Parliament’s foreign policy commission, both of whom are descended from high members of the clergy, are an affront to “Islamic values and an insult to the top officials of the regime. He added that her outfit would be a better fit at “a party or a night club”.
The parliamentary adviser on international affairs, Hossein Sheikoleslam told the Fars News Agency that “the inappropriate hijab of this guest was not deliberate and it was more a failure of the country’s officials to clarify the exact parameters of compliance with hijab”. He went on to laud her for keeping her distance from the head of Parliament during the meeting.
The debate stretches to social media, where some believe female diplomats are disrespectful of Islamic values and Iranian laws when they contravene hijab in Iran, while others say these diplomats should not be forced to wear the hijab.
Universal Hijab laws for everyone
Iran had no laws about women covering themselves in public until 1982. The first hijab law passed by Parliament was Article 102 of the Disciplinary Law, which says: “Women who appear in public places and public view without Sharia-required hijab will be sentenced to 75 lashes.” According to this law, women within the Islamic Republic, be they Iranians or foreigners and Muslims or non-Muslims, must comply with hijab requirements while in public places and public view. In 1997, the law was developed further in Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code.
A senior member of the Iranian clergy, Ayatollah Hadavi Tehrani, explains the obligation for foreign women to don the hijab, saying: “Complying with hijab is a religious obligation for Muslim women. Freedom of conscience and religion, therefore, gives Muslim women the right to comply with their religious obligations wherever they may be. However, the rejection of hijab is not a religious obligation for non-Muslims … so from their point of view, hijab is a permissible issue that can by made obligatory by the law, like any other permissible issue.”
Despite such explanations for demanding that foreign diplomats observe hijab requirements in Iran, moderate factions maintain that such demands have had serious political costs for the country. They say diplomatic protocols should also be sensitive to the culture of the other parties.
So far, international diplomacy has remained compliant with the compulsory hijab demanded by the Islamic Republic order, even though every once in a while, women like Marietje Schaake unsettle this order.