When it comes to the modesty standards for women in Iran, even those who are visiting, it seems that respect for the beliefs of others comes secondary to the beliefs of the Iranian hardliners. Sweden sent a high-ranking delegation to Iran in early February. During their visit, the women donned hijabs to show respect for Iran’s modesty laws.
This approach didn’t go far enough with Iranian hardliners, who objected to the fact that trade contracts were signed at the residence of the Swedish ambassador and that women in attendance did not wear hijabs.
The Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, arrived in Tehran on February 10 and was officially received by President Hassan Rouhani at Saadabad Palace. The Prime Minister met with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 11.
The Supreme Leader focused on the trade agreements, expressing his hope that the agreements will be acted on by the Swedish government. “You are known as a man of action and practical steps, and it is expected that you will act in such a way that agreements will not merely remain on paper,” said Khamenei.
Other agreements between Iran and various European governments have not moved forward. The agreements signed by Sweden and Iran during this visit include five memoranda of understanding on technology, research, road, information technology and women and family affairs.
On February 12, Kayhan’s chief editor Hossein Shariatmadari wrote, “In an unexpected and questionable occurrence, the ceremony for signing trade contracts between Iran and Sweden was held at the residence of the Swedish ambassador and not our country’s official institutions.” He then noted that female members of the Swedish delegation were not wearing hijabs.
Iranian law states that all men and women, even visiting dignitaries, ambassadors and their staff, must observe the Islamic dress code. As a result, women must cover their hair, typically using a hijab. These are not necessary on embassy grounds or diplomatic residences.
Shariatmadari reported that “the Swedish Prime Minister and the ambassador had insisted that the ceremony be held at the Swedish ambassador’s residence so that these women could attend without [observing the] hijab.”
He noted that the presence of high ranking officials at the ceremony could suggest that they “do not respect Islamic laws.” The piece also referenced the sending of diplomatic messages through email and Twitter, as well as negotiating with officials while walking the grounds, “[makes] foreign relations uncontrolled and out of sight of high-ranking officials.”
The high-ranking official referenced is the Supreme Leader, who handpicked Shariatmadari for his editorial post.
The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has also been criticized for his actions during the nuclear negotiations, particularly emails and his walk with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. These negotiations led to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
Another bone of contention the hardliners have with the Swedish delegation’s visit is that the agreements weren’t signed in an official Iranian venue, calling it a “diplomatic humiliation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and humiliation of the Iranian nation.”
However, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry Bahram Ghassemi said on February 13, “One of the top agendas of the ceremony at the Swedish ambassador’s residence was the opening of the Economic Bureau [trade mission] of Sweden in Iran by the prime minister of this country. The signing of agreements [between the private sectors of Iran and Sweden] as the symbol of the beginning of practical cooperation of the private sectors was done at the opening of the bureau.” He also noted the signing of the agreements at the ambassador’s resident wasn’t contrary to any international procedure.
The Swedish delegation also received criticism at home, but for wearing hajibs at all during their visit. Jan Bjorklund, the leader of the opposition Liberals, called the hajib a “symbol of oppression for women in Iran”, arguing that the delegation should have demanded exemptions from Iranian law.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a human rights group and frequent critic of Iran, tweeted, “Walk of shame. Women of Sweden’s “first feminist government in the world” don hajib as they walk past Iran’s Rouhani.”
Neuer also noted, “If Sweden really cares about human rights, they should not be empowering a regime that brutalizes its own citizens while carrying out genocide in Syria; and if they care about women’s rights, then the female ministers never should have gone to misogynistic Iran in the first place.”
Trade Minister Ann Linde noted that Sweden has raised human rights repeatedly in discussions with Iran. “We can be just as much against the death penalty and take it up, while [we] trade. It will not be less [of a] chance that they do something about the death penalty because we are there.” She noted that trade is always good, provided that businesses are responsible and do not contribute to making the situation within the other country worse. Linde also mentioned that there are instances when “sanctions and boycotts are good”, citing South Africa as an example.
Iranian activist Masih Alinejad has urged European female politicians “to stand for their own dignity” and refuse to the compulsory rule of wearing the hajib while they are in Iran. She has created a Facebook page for Iranian women to resist the law by showing their hair. It has approximately 1 million followers.
She called European female politicians hypocrites, “because they stand up with the French Muslim women, and condemn the burkini ban – because they think compulsion is bad – but when it happens to Iran, they just care about money.” She also said that it is not a cultural issue, but “the most visible symbol of oppression”.
“By actually complying with the directives of the Islamic Republic, Western women legitimize the compulsory hijab law,” Alinejad wrote on Facebook. “This is a discriminatory law and it’s not an internal matter when the Islamic Republic forces all non-Iranian women to wear hijab as well.”
Female politicians have to recognize the laws of the country that they are visiting, or risk damaging relations with that country. Additionally, Iran claims to be a theocratic government, which means there is no freedom of religion and it lacks the boundaries against compulsory dress codes that a secular nation may have.
Since the Swedish delegation’s visit, several companies have signed contracts to deliver goods to Iran, including Scania’s contract to deliver buses to Iran’s third largest city, Esfahan.