Iran Lifts Veils-in-School Rules

For the first time since the 1979 revolution, the Education Ministry is allowing girls to attend all-female schools in Tehran without headscarves — a move religious hard-liners criticized as "encouraging nudity."

The Education Ministry said in a directive published Thursday that schoolgirls aged 7 to 18 will be allowed in class without headscarves and robes, which previously had been mandatory.

The decision, which also applies to teachers, will be limited to 11,000 girls' schools in Tehran when it comes into force in September, the start of the academic year.

"The implementation of this plan is not in any contradiction with Islamic and national values," Homeira Rahimi, an official at the Education Ministry, said in remarks published Thursday.

For the moment, hard-liners opposed to President Mohammad Khatami's program of easing political and social restrictions appeared to have limited their unhappiness with the decision to criticising it in the press. Their restraint is widely interpreted as part of a new pragmatism: A willingness to permit more social freedoms in hopes of dampening challenges to the theocracy's powers.

The hard-line Jomhuri Islami daily said Thursday the directive was "encouraging the culture of nudity" and was aimed at weakening religious values.

"This is what we've been waiting for a long time and it's good that we can now do it officially," said Shahrzad Entezari, a 17-year-old high school student. She said the new rule was "better than nothing," and that authorities should realize the "desires of the new generation."

Women in Iran have been expected to follow strict Islamic dress codes since the 1979 revolution, which toppled the pro-Western shah and brought Islamic clerics to power. Authorities ordered schools to be segregated and male teachers replaced at girls' schools.

University classes remained open to both men and women.

After Khatami's 1997 election, many women began defining new boundaries in Islamic clothing. They let their hair cascade from beneath loose scarves. And billowing black chadors or shapeless coats have been cast aside by some young women in favor of elegant knee-length smocks or even tight business-style jackets. Some girls just toss on a baggy sweater.

Such liberties would have risked arrest or a beating by morality enforcers only a few years ago.

"Yes, I believe this is a right thing to do, but someone should explain to the people the reason why the restriction was in place for the past 23 years," said Shadi Sadr, a female journalist and law expert.

"I think the authorities who imposed it during all these years owe an apology for the wrong regulations which violated the rights of Iranian girls," she said.

Mahin, a teacher who refused to give her other name, said the directive came too late.

"It's useless and even harmful to impose unnecessary restrictions on teenage girls," she said. "I think this is inevitable. We cannot force a cultural matter physically. Our girls are good and smart, they can chose the right way," the high school teacher of more than 20 years, said.