‘Let People Be!’ Iran's Rouhani Says as Freedoms Debate Heats Up

Updated on
  • Iranian president speaks at rally marking Islamic Revolution
  • Islamic Republic prescribes dress code, limits internet access

Hassan Rouhani

Photographer: Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani chose an unusual forum to appeal for greater personal freedoms -- the annual celebration of the Islamic Revolution that dramatically limited them.

For Rouhani, it was a familiar appeal, one that’s helped him to get elected. But he’s come under unprecedented pressure from recent protests demanding the better life he’s promised. Small numbers of women, too, have rebelled against Islamic prescriptions of female modesty, removing the mandatory hijab, or veil, on busy streets and hanging it from poles.

Rouhani on Feb. 6.

Photographer: Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg

“Let people be,” said Rouhani, speaking in downtown Tehran to hundreds of thousands gathered at a parade marking the 39th anniversary of the Islamic Republic. “Let’s not infringe on their privacy, people’s private lives belong to them.” Rouhani has not yet directly addressed the hijab protests.

The context of the plea reflected the Rouhani administration’s growing rift with some hardline groups within the clerical-led establishment. The parade is usually associated with Rouhani’s more conservative opponents rather than his more moderate core supporters.

Covered Contours

Many in the crowd were pious Iranians who tend to vote for hardliners intent on maintaining their grip on social codes. The Islamic Republic requires women to cover their hair and body countours, bars alcohol and restricts access to certain websites including social media, saying it can fuel dissent and encourages immoral behavior.

“I think they have enough when it comes to freedoms,” Zeinab Hosseini, a 31-year-old housewife, said of women as she was leaving the parade. “I’ve seen men and women mingling and you can be relatively free in how you dress,” said Hosseini, whose blond hair peeked out from under a beige shawl.

On the sidelines of the rally, a man who would give his name only as Hassan said greater liberties were needed.

“In every country you go to, anywhere, people want freedom and that’s normal,” said Hassan, a 34-year-old unemployed mechanical engineer who was waiting to pick up commuters in the taxi he drives to make ends meet. “If they are more free they can get on better with their lives.”

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