As Iran Protests Spread, Amanpour’s Refusal to Wear Headscarf Torpedoes CNN Interview With Raisi

By Patrick Goodenough | September 23, 2022 | 4:44am EDT
Iranian demonstrators on the streets of Tehran protest the death of a young woman in police custody. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian demonstrators on the streets of Tehran protest the death of a young woman in police custody. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – An arranged interview in New York with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was called off Thursday after his minders set as a condition that CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour wear a headscarf.

Amanpour said she had refused to comply with the condition, which in her experience of having interviewed every Iranian president since 1995, had never been applied before when the encounter took place outside of Iran.

Inside Iran it was different, the British-Iranian journalist told CNN’s New Day program, “because it is the custom. One always does wear the headscarf when one’s there, that’s just – otherwise you couldn’t operate as journalists.”

Raisi traveled to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, leaving at home a country roiled by spreading protests triggered by the death in custody of a young woman arrested by “morality” police enforcing the regime’s strict hijab rules. At least 31 protestors are reported to have been killed in the spreading unrest, now in its seventh day.

Amanpour said the process of arranging the interview with Raisi’s team had been well underway when “at the very end they come up with this, you know, ‘it’s a religious month of mourning and we need you to wear a headscarf.’ And I very politely declined, on behalf of myself and CNN and female journalists everywhere, because it is not a requirement, and it was lobbed at us at the very last minute.”

Christianne Amanpour wears a headscarf as she interviews then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in Tehran in 1998. (Photo by Irna / AFP via Getty Images)
Christianne Amanpour wears a headscarf as she interviews then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in Tehran in 1998. (Photo by Irna / AFP via Getty Images)

(On the Islamic calendar, the months of Muharram and Safar mark the martyrdom of Ali, Mohammed’s grandson and the “third imam” in Shi’a Islam. This year the months largely coincide with August and September.)

Asked to speculate on why Raisi’s delegation had set the demand that she cover her hair, Amanpour, tied it to the situation back in Iran.

“I think that they – he did not want to be seen with a female without a headscarf in this moment,” she said.

“Either because he calls it a religious month, or because, people would say, how come he’s sitting down with a, you know, a foreign journalist who is not wearing a headscarf, yet inside Iran, they’re cracking down on young women who are not wearing their headscarves?”

Last week, before Raisi traveled to the U.S., he was interviewed in Tehran by CBS News’ Leslie Stahl, decked in a headscarf, for a “Sixty Minutes” program that aired on Sunday night.

“I was told how to dress, not to sit before he did, and not to interrupt him,” Stahl explained to viewers of the program.

Video clips posted online of the protests now underway in Iran show many women removing and sometimes burning headscarves in defiance of the regime, which strictly enforces its dress requirements.

‘Dress code’

For years, female politicians, mostly Europeans, have covered their hair when visiting Iran, often drawing criticism at home for complying with a requirement that has nothing to do with their own culture or religion – and one that many women see as a sign of submission.

Even Saudi Arabia, another strict Islamic regime with a poor record on women’s rights, has not insisted that high-level female Western visitors, including U.S. first ladies and secretaries of state and European heads of government, cover their heads when visiting the kingdom.

(Iranian state media fumed in 2017 when during President Trump’s first trip abroad as president neither Melania nor Ivanka Trump wore headscarves. King Salman was accused of “disregard for religious values.”)

Former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who while in office sought to present a more acceptable face to the outside world as he defended the regime’s behavior, described the headscarf requirement as part of a cultural dress code.

CNN correspondent Christianne Amanpour wears a headscarf during a visit to Iran to cover presidential elections in 1997. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
CNN correspondent Christianne Amanpour wears a headscarf during a visit to Iran to cover presidential elections in 1997. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

“Every country has a dress code,” he told a Council on Foreign Relations audience in New York in 2018. “We may like that dress code or we may dislike that dress code, but the laws of that society require people to respect the dress code that they establish.”

“You set the limits somewhere, and that somewhere is determined by the moral norms of that society,” Zarif said, pointing out that “you cannot even enter McDonald’s without a T-shirt on.”

Earlier this week Iranian-born actor and human rights advocate Nazanin Boniadi took issue with the argument that wearing a hijab was a cultural norm in Iran, noting that before the Islamic revolution in 1979, women who wore the hijab coexisted peacefully with women who did not.

“There was a freedom of choice,” she told PBS News Hour. “And that’s what we’re fighting for.”

 

“To call it a ‘cultural dress code’ of kinds, which the former Foreign Minister Zarif and countless other Iranian officials have tried to sort of tell the wide world, the global public – that’s a myth, that’s a lie,” Boniadi said. “Because what kind of cultural norm has to be controlled through batons and through threats of death and imprisonment?”

“You don’t need to subjugate people for a cultural norm to exist, if the majority of women actually chose the hijab. But what you’re seeing is people risking their lives, you’re seeing people taking to the streets and risking imprisonment.”

Boniadi said she hoped that, during Raisi’s visit to the U.S. Western female officials and journalists meeting with him do not follow headscarf stipulations, as an act of “solidarity with the people of Iran.”

“You don’t need to wear a headscarf out of respect for a man who doesn’t respect the rights of his people, or women in general,” she said.

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