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The great Iranian cover-up

A nation with strict dress codes for women is also a world leader in cosmetics and nose jobs.

On a spring night five years ago, millions of Iranians tuned in to national television and watched as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a little-known presidential candidate — spoke about a touchy issue: the way young people dress.

“Is really the only problem that our country faces today, the way our young dress?” he asked. “They like to wear their hair they way they do. It’s no business of me and you. We have many more important issues to deal with. Why do we belittle our people?”

They were words many Iranians had been waiting to hear from an Iranian official for years. But they remain simply that: words. In Iran, women are required by law to cover their body and hair in public, though that has rarely stopped many women, especially younger ones, from defying the conservative officials by wearing loose headscarves, tight clothes and make-up.

Since Ahmadinejad’s bold speech, the government has unveiled even stricter rules on the way women dress and occasionally unleashed the so-called morality police to enforce them.

However, as last summer’s post-election civil unrest proved, the power of the authorities to dictate the way people dress can depend heavily on events. During the mass street protests that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, officials admitted that spending resources on “morality” wasn’t a priority.

“If in the previous months we’ve been more easy going on the issue of hijab, it’s because we wanted to crush the troublemakers. But now, the issue of ‘bad hijab’ has gone far enough,” Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, the leader of the clergy faction in the Iranian parliament, told Khabaronline, a Tehran-based news website, recently.

Other officials are also again talking about new, harsher measures to combat “bad hijab.” In May, Mohammad Najjar, the interior minister, warned of a nationwide crackdown on immodest clothing. And in a speech that grabbed worldwide headlines in April, the acting Friday prayer leader, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, foresaw an apocalyptic future for the country because of promiscuous women and unsuitable appearances.

“Women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes,” he said. “What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam’s moral codes.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has also weighed in, ordering morality police to take immediate action on the issue of hijab, which he has deemed to be in an unsatisfactory state.

So familiar with the restrictions of hijab in Iran is 25-year-old Saghar Daeeri, an artist living in Tehran, that she has made the hijab of Tehrani women the topic of her art.

“My paintings are a reflection of what I see in Tehran every day,” she said in an interview. “Everyday, I walk around in town, go to coffee shops and shopping malls and observe the people around me. What I see is women struggling to thrust themselves into modernity in a city that is still deeply attached to its traditional and religious roots.”