Mon, May 22, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Draft law on Islamic dress raises concerns

STEP BACKWARD? Despite his tough rhetoric, Iranian President Ahmadinejad hasnt reversed social reforms. That may change with a draft law encouraging Islamic dress


Iranian women wear the ``chador,'' a head-to-toe garment, as they pass a tourist in Isfahan some 400km south of Tehran, in this photo from earlier this month.


A draft law aimed at encouraging Islamic dress raised fears on Saturday that Iran's hardline government plans to re-impose veils and head-to-toe overcoats on women who have shirked the restrictions for years, letting hair show and wearing jeans and shapely outfits.

The looser social rules and dress codes are one of the few legacies left from Iran's once-strong reform movement.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose election last summer spelled the virtual end of the reformists' influence, came to office touting a return to Islamic values, with the support of clerical hard-liners who stymied reformers' attempts at greater change.

Ahmadinejad has purged reformers from government, angered the West with calls for Israel's destruction and taken a tough line resisting UN demands that he curb Iran's nuclear program. But so far, his government hasn't tried to roll back the social changes won during the reformer's seven years in power.

Iranian liberals have held out hopes they were irreversible, counting that Ahmadinejad would not risk alienating a large sector of the young, who make up the majority of Iran's 70 million population.

But the draft law, which got preliminary approval in parliament last week, had many concerned the other shoe may be about to drop.

"It is a ridiculous bill. Young Iranian girls will not return to the so-called Islamic loose-fitting clothes," said Sahar Gharakhani, a 25-year-old secretary wearing a colorful headscarf and a stylish jacket in the streets of Tehran on Saturday.

"The only way for authorities to make this happen is if they force it," she said.

The social gains made in the past were often measured in hem-lines and retreating headscarves.

Laws in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution require women to wear chador -- a head-to-toe, loose-fitting black overcoat and veil that covers their hair and hides their shapes. They were enforced by religious police and paramilitaries, who castigated women who showed too much hair, wore makeup or had a chador that didn't fit the required dark colors and shape.

But under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, elected in 1997, enforcement became lax, and women took advantage, adding color to their clothes, pulling back scarves and shortening their coats.

Now on Tehran's busy streets, women are a mix of the conservative and the liberal, some adhering to the strict code of the chador. Others, however, are seen in scarves that leave almost their entire heads bare, showing blonde-highlighted hair, and brightly colored form-fitting jackets, called manteaus, that stop just under the waist, revealing jeans and sandalled feet with painted nails.

The 13-article bill -- which focuses on economic incentives for Islamic dress -- has been touted by conservatives as a vital tool to curb Western influence in the conservative Islamic Republic. No date has been set yet on a final vote on the bill.

Lawmaker Emad Afroogh defended it, saying it would not be imposed by force.

"This bill brings no obligation, no imposition. It only requires the government to support the private sector," he said, adding that it was a way to "resist the [Western] cultural onslaught in a world where globalization is being imposed."

The bill does not call for police or other bodies to enforce stricter styles of dress for women. Instead, it rallies state agencies to promote Islamic dress and "encourage the public to abstain from choosing clothes that aren't appropriate to the culture of Iran," according to the copy received from the parliament's press office.

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