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Why Iran won't budge on mandatory hijab laws — according to the president's wife

Jamileh Alamolhoda is the wife of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Kholood Eid for NPR
Jamileh Alamolhoda is the wife of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Iran's government has put forth a new spokesperson to defend its policies toward women: the president's wife.

Jamileh Alamolhoda accompanied her husband to the annual meeting of the United Nations in New York. She took questions from NPR as her country marked the one-year anniversary of nationwide uprisings that were triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died in police custody for allegedly not wearing the compulsory headscarf correctly.

Alamolhoda's husband came to New York last year as those protests swept across the country and famously canceled an interview with CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour after she declined to cover her hair. Now, a year later, his wife strove to make a different impression, though she defended her government's policy.

"I am mostly representing women and ladies whose voices have not been heard by Americans," she said. She asserted that many Iranian women support the head coverings, and she defended a crackdown on protests in which thousands of people were detained, hundreds killed, and several executed for participating in the uprising, according to human rights groups.

Alamolhoda—whose aides say is not called the First Lady but simply the president's wife—spoke while wearing a chador, a kind of black head-to-toe cape that she clutched so that it covered her hair. She spoke softly at first, but became more animated as the conversation progressed.

She is from Mashad, a conservative city most noted for a vast Shia Muslim shrine. She has said that her husband permitted her education. She holds advanced degrees and a professorship of a university. And in arguing in favor of restrictions on women, she maintains she is advocating for women—those who primarily support their husbands and families.

"Traditional feminist movements do not tend to be very helpful to them because their road map is quite different. The traditional feminist movements are, in fact, based on a competition between men and women," she said.

The president's wife represents both Iran's education and its forms of conservatism. She insisted that Iranian women who rebelled were following Western culture as expressed in Hollywood films or social media, and were choosing "Americanization," which she defined as the pursuit of financial independence "at the cost of everything else." She advocated "Iranianization," which she described as a more traditional focus on family.

Robin Wright, a specialist on Iran, says many women in Iran do embrace conservative views. But over the past 40 years — with the support of the government itself — Iranian women have grown almost universally literate and far better educated than in the past. More educated women have made more connections with the wider world, and some have demanded the choice to dress and act differently.

They include 19-year-old Baran, an Iranian who told NPR last month that she will never go back to wearing the mandatory headscarf. "No. No way. I prefer to die," she said from Tehran, adding that she would continue fighting for Mahsa Amini and "everyone killed by Islamic Republic of Iran."

The dress code remains vital to the government where clerics have held ultimate authority since a revolution in 1979. "If the majority of women took off their headscarves or rebelled against the Islamic dress code, that would amount to the unraveling of the revolution," Wright said.

On the day we met Alamolhoda, Iran's parliament voted for legislation increasing fines and prison terms for violating the dress code.

Asked why the government felt threatened by women who made a choice to see the world differently, she replied that it would "negatively affect" the "health of the family unit," asserting that something like this had happened in the United States.

"Lack of humility in covering leads to increased nakedness. And this causes family issues. It ends up in the destruction of the family unit, it ends in divorces and such social anomalies," Alamolhoda said.

Before the interview, NPR asked a number of women in Iran what questions they would pose to the president's wife. One, named Sara, asked what message Alamolhoda had for the mothers whose daughters were killed in the protests of the past year.

"I feel their loss," Alamolhoda said, adding that men had also lost their lives "in defense of public order" during the past year.

Some security were killed during the protests.

The president's wife said they were supporting "the dignity of women."

The radio version of this story was produced by Lisa Weiner and edited by Arezou Rezvani. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.