An attempt by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to defend the hijab rule and downplay human rights violations in the country has not gone down well with some Iranians.
Speaking on April 23 at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Zarif suggested that the hijab rule that became compulsory following the 1979 revolution is a cultural norm and compared it to other countries’ “dress codes.”
Under the hijab rule, many Iranian women have been physically and verbally harassed, detained, and sentenced to fines and jail terms for noncompliance.
Over the years, many Iranian women have resisted the hijab rule and pushed the boundaries by showing their hair under small scarves and also by wearing tighter and shorter coats.
In past weeks, dozens of women have staged public protests against the compulsory hijab in Tehran and other cities.
Zarif was asked by a moderator what he would say to one of the women jailed for not wearing the hijab if she was present at the event.
“If the lady was sitting here, I would tell her that every society has a dress code," Zarif responded.
“We may like that dress code or we may dislike that dress code, but the laws of that society require people to respect the dress code that they establish,” the Iranian foreign minister said.
“I know that you cannot even enter McDonald’s without a T-shirt on. That’s a -- that’s a dress code. I do not want to minimize that, but you should not oversensationalize it. The fact is there is a dress code. Women in Iran participate in social life, participate in political life, participate in educational life,” Zarif said.
He was challenged on social media by Iranians, including Maryam Shariatmadari, one of the young women who recently challenged the hijab rule by removing her scarf in public and waving it on a stick while standing on a utility box on a busy street in Tehran.
Shariatmadari, who was pushed down from the utility box by a police officer, was detained and sentenced to one year in prison, pending appeal.
“Forced hijab is not a culture, it’s a law, and we protest against it,” Shariatmadari tweeted on April 24 in reaction to Zarif.
“Unfortunately Iranian officials, like you, are reluctant to hear this objection,” she added.
The Iranian foreign minister also played down state mistreatment of the Baha’is in Iran. Many followers of the Baha’i faith have been either expelled or banned from higher education, their businesses shut down, and their cemeteries desecrated.
Dozens of them have been harassed and jailed over their religious beliefs.
When pressed on the Baha’is, Zarif noted that the Islamic republic does not recognize the Baha’i faith as a religion.
“Being a Baha’i is not a crime,” he added. “Somebody can be agnostic, somebody can be an atheist. We don’t take them to prison because they are an atheist. So this is the difference that you need to make. But being -- also, being a Baha’i does not immunize somebody from being prosecuted for offenses that people may commit."
Many questioned his claim by highlighting rights violations against Baha’is, including against Iranian playwright and actress Shabnam Tolouei.
“Dear Mr @JZarif , recently you said that being #Bahai is not a crime in Iran. Pls let me know why I was forbidden to continue my artistic career in Iran as soon as I responded honestly to the security service about my religion -Bahai faith?” Tolouei wrote on twitter.
“Mr, Zarif, now [that you say] being Baha’i is not a crime, please tell us why me and thousands of other Baha’is are not allowed to study at [Iran’s] official universities? Why are Baha’i businesses being closed all the time in Iran? For what ‘crime’ was my grandfather, a simple farmer, executed by firing squad in 1979?” User Sepehr Atefi asked Zarif on Twitter.
Amid the backlash, some Iranians used the hashtag #ProudofZarif to express support for the Iranian foreign minister, who was widely praised in 2015 for negotiating the nuclear deal with world powers.
Zarif was also widely criticized in 2015 for claiming that Iran does not jail people for their opinions.