The Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance's new dictate on acceptable male hairstyles might seem absurd, even silly. The government agency has drawn international attention by requiring Iranian men to choose from a handful of "Islamic" haircuts. But the restrictions, another in a long line of Islam-touting regulations on the daily life of Iranian citizens, are no joke. That they are arbitrary and bizarre is precisely the point.
Whatever you think of the Iranian leadership's judgment, it's unlikely that they feel particularly threatened by spiked hair or frosted tips. While the regime often cites religion in such laws, Koranic scholars will find little in Shia doctrine forbidding hair gel. The regime's chief goal is control of the public sphere, which it has aggressively pursued for years. Westerners will be most familiar with the clunky black chador forced on Iranian women by the often violent Islamic police. There are also tight controls on the media, on who may attend private social gatherings, and even laws forbidding unmarried, unrelated women and men from publicly interacting. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sees these restrictions as essential for maintaining , and the more that Iranians agitate for democracy the more he will respond by grinding personal freedoms into the sand.
Iran has endured authoritarian rule for a century, but state control has accelerated to Soviet extremes over the past decade. In the 1990s, Iranian leadership split over whether or not Iran should adopt what was commonly described as the "China model" of gradual economic liberalization and increased foreign ties. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ultimately decided against the plan, worried that political liberalization would follow and ultimately threaten his authoritarian rule. But the lengthy public discourse had convinced a number of Iranians--especially within the middle class--of the benefits of opening the borders and markets. Many of these business-oriented but largely apolitical Iranians joined university liberals who had long called for democratization. As the forces of globalization pressured Iran from without and reformists pressured Iran from within, the regime became increasingly insecure.
Demographically, Iran should be a democracy. It has high literacy and education rates, a large and vibrant middle class, independent labor and business communities, and a strong tradition of political organizing and involvement. The regime retains authoritarian rule in large part because it firmly controls so much of Iranians' public lives. The regime typically increases these controls in times of social unrest. The baseej, an informal citizen militia loosely tied to the state, can closely monitor their neighbors and brutally enforce state restrictions. Many Iranians become so consumed with navigating these complicated laws that public spaces become places of fear and self-censorship. Because phone taps are common and because your neighbor might be a baseej who closely monitors whoever enters your home, even private spaces are suffocated by state control. Regulating hair styles may not seem like it would be very effective, but this move is part of a sweeping, pervasive strategy to engineer individual freedom out of every imaginable aspect of public life.
Image: A woman in full chador stands before an illustration of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance's approved "Islamic" hair styles for men. By Mohsen Rezai for Getty Images.