TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - About a dozen girls' schools in the Iranian capital have allowed students and teachers to remove their veils and long cloaks in class for the first time since the 1979 revolution, a school principal said Saturday.
Tahereh Ebadi told The Associated Press the Education Ministry approved the change as long as schools put up decorative walls to guard against "lascivious looks" from men.
Students and teachers in all-female schools have attended classes since the academic year began in September without headscarves and chadors, the shapeless long coats women wear in public to conform with Islamic dress code.
Ebadi said the idea was tested in the government-owned Maktab-ol-Ahrar high school for girls in southern Tehran, where she is the principal, for several years before being applied to other schools in the capital. Religious hard-liners criticize the move as "encouraging nudity," but Ebadi said it has been successful.
"Students look fresh without headscarves and long coats. Lifting the veil has also encouraged them to take care of their appearance," said Ebadi, who also is a ministry official because of her position at the school.
Headscarves and cloaks in hot summer make it hard to concentrate on studies or enjoy playing sports, said Zahra Hosseini, 15, who started classes this year at Maktab-ol-Ahrar and said she enjoys "the sense of freedom."
"You can't play basketball while being dressed in a long coat," she said. "I remember that a student's coat was torn apart as she jumped to get the ball last year. Now, we enjoy playing in sport suits here."
Maryam Husseinpour, 16, attends Fatemieh High School in Tehran, where headscarves and cloaks still are required. She said she will switch schools if barriers are not erected soon to allow students to take headscarves off.
Her mother, however, does not like the idea.
"Even if they are all female, they should not remove their headscarves," Gowhar Husseinpour said. "If they remove the headscarf, then they will not stop at that stage. They would go beyond that, which will ultimately be encouraging nudity."
About 80 percent of her students have chosen to go unveiled, Ebadi said. The rest, she said, either keep their scarves on or remove them occasionally.
"I mostly prefer to keep it (the headscarf), even at an all-female school. My family's religious background encourages me to keep the veil," said Leila Salmani, 17, who attends Maktab-ol-Ahrar.
Men who want to enter the school must wait at the outside gate so students and teachers can cover themselves.
Modifying the school meant extending the 6-foot-high permanent courtyard walls by nine more feet. Curtains also are kept closed.
"We didn't want to make the school like a prison for students, so we set up plastic, prefabricated walls painted in bright colors to nicely decorate our school and, at the same time, prevent lascivious looks from buildings nearby," Ebadi said.
The ministry, is studying expanding the initiative in coming years, she said.
Hard-liners opposed to President Mohammad Khatami's program of easing political and social restrictions oppose the idea.
"It encourages the culture of nudity and weakens Islamic religious values," the hard-line Jomhuri-e-Eslami daily said recently.
Women in Iran have been forced to follow strict Islamic dress codes since the 1979 revolution toppled the pro-Western shah and brought Islamic clerics to power. Schools were segregated and male teachers were replaced by female ones at girls' schools.
Universities, however, remained open to both men and women.
After Khatami's 1997 election and 2001 re-election, many women began defying strict clothing requirements. Some let their hair cascade from beneath loose scarves or started wearing elegant knee-length dresses and tight business-style jackets. Some girls wear baggy sweaters, which would have risked them arrest or a beating by so-called "morality enforcers" only a few years ago.