A conservative Iranian cleric has sharply criticized enforcement of the obligation for women to wear the Islamic head scarf, or hijab, since the 1979 revolution and the creation of Iran's Islamic republic.
For more than three decades, Iranian clerics and officials --mostly men -- have praised the purported benefits of the hijab while employing punishment, including violence, to force women to fully cover their hair and body in public.
As a result, tens of thousands of women have been harassed physically and verbally, detained, or forced to pay fines for noncompliance with the state-imposed dress code.
Enforcement usually intensifies during the hot months of summer, when hard-liners frequently call for more action against women who are pushing the boundaries by showing more hair and wearing tighter and shorter coats.
Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reza Zaeri, a former editor of the popular Hamshahri daily, agrees with his conservative fellows that hijab is a "value" that they claim keeps society safe. But he acknowledges what critics have long argued: that the policy of enforcement has been a failure.
Speaking last week on the compulsory hijab at a seminary in Qom, conservative home to many of Iran's senior clerics, Zaeri was quoted by Iranian news sites as saying: "I strongly believe that the policy of mandatory hijab has been totally wrong."
The cleric, who has authored two books on the hijab, added that giving women a choice would make it easier to convince them of the perceived benefits.
"If the hijab were free, there would have been more respect for its sanctity," Zaeri said at the May 27 seminar.
He said promotion of strict Islamic dress would be easier in Jakarta than in Tehran or Qom, for instance, because the hijab is not compulsory in Indonesia.
He also said the popularity of the chador, which is being promoted by Iranian authorities as the "superior hijab," has been on the decline as most women opt for scarves and short coats.
Zaeri has made similarly controversial remarks before, including in an hourlong debate focused on the hijab that was aired on state-controlled television in March.
"It's as if I closed the door of this room and told you that you had to stay here for three hours and watch a movie, then I repeatedly explained to you that this movie had won an Oscar for its artistic value. When you're forced into [something], the praise is meaningless," he said on the show.
In a May interview with the conservative Alef.ir, Zaeri said Iran's Islamic establishment had put too much focus on the hijab while neglecting the issue of "social justice."
He said he agreed with those who suggest that seeing women who are not properly veiled leads to "sexual excitement" among young people and "trauma and emotional abuse" in society.
But he questioned whether seeing luxury cars and homes was not a greater source of distress in a society in which many are struggling with economic problems.
In another debate held last year, Zaeri said a dialogue with what are often described as "badly veiled" women was more important that talks with the United States.
"How come we're ready to hold talks with Ashton" -- a reference to former EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, who at one point led international nuclear negotiations with Iran -- "out of necessity and compulsion but we don't see this necessity in our social issues?" he asked.
A young woman in the Iranian capital told RFE/RL that the cleric had a point.
"He's right that the policy has failed, [authorities] have failed to convince us to respect the hijab -- we wear head scarves because we have to, not because we want to," she said.
However, she added that she believes if women were given a choice in Iran, the majority would go without the hijab. She said that the authorities "know it -- that's why they use force."
Last month, senior Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi suggested that the Islamic establishment could not exist without the compulsory hijab. "If one day the hijab is removed [from Iranian society], the establishment will be removed, therefore there should be investment on the issue of hijab," the hard-line cleric was quoted as saying on May 25.
In recent months, hard-liners critical of the social policies of Iranian President Hassan Rohani have increased their warnings about improper veiling. Rohani, a self-proclaimed moderate, has spoken in favor of the hijab while offering some criticism of the use of force to impose it.
-- Golnaz Esfandiari