Iran’s women have long fought this battle
The Author is an Iranian-born writer and filmmaker
In 2001, when I was 13, I campaigned in Tehran for the right to take off our headscarf at school. I argued with my principal that we should hide our hair since it was an all-girls institution. I even heard an article about how important vitamin D is for my age group. The headmaster relented. They put a thick curtain at the entrance and from then on we shed our hair coverings upon arrival.
But she was an exception. The hijab issue has less to do with religious connotations and more to do with control. It has been weaponized since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Now, 20 years after my small victory, viral videos show young Iranian girls burning their headscarves, berating photos of the supreme leader and shouting death to the dictator. . . on the school grounds. Even with the threat of deportation or arrest. Apparently this generation is no longer afraid.
Recently, young girls have been able to achieve more with less impact compared to the early days after the revolution. But these little signs of progress sometimes give the illusion of freedom. At its core, the political ideology of the state has never caught up with the demands of society. The Morality Police are a manifestation of that delay: a draconian, omniscient organization whose job is to make you feel like you never left school. This is the organization that arrested Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish girl who was visiting Tehran and whose death in custody sparked this whole movement.
From the beginning of the Islamic revolution, the hijab was one of the “pillars” of the new regime. For totalitarian systems, a congruent visual identity sends a strong message: everyone thinks the same thing. If uniforms are an authoritarian fantasy, then the freedom to choose how one presents oneself is a direct challenge.
The compulsory hijab has gone through many iterations in Iranian history. In 1936, inspired by Turkish Atatürk, Reza Shah Pahlavi issued a decree for all women to remove their hijab in a vigorous and controversial attempt at modernization. More than 40 years later, Ayatollah Khomeini introduced the mandatory hijab to paint a brand new aesthetic for the new Islamic Republic. Once again, women were not part of this decision.
Over the past 43 years, Iranian women have continued to push the boundaries of their looks. About 60 percent of Iranian university graduates are women; They’re professionals, they tour the world for sporting events, they go to raves and sunbathe on their rooftops, they’re in underground bands and they work in medicine – they’re online, informed, contemporary and not afraid to be seen. It’s not just women, of course – there are conservatives who advocate for compulsory hijab and school principals who would never have approved of my younger self. But increasingly, those who call for change are willing to take big risks in expressing their dissatisfaction.
Even during the 1979 revolution, Iranian women protested Khomeini’s hijab decree – chanting “We didn’t have a revolution to go back in time”. Since then they have been repeatedly told that there are “more important” reasons to fight for and the matter of hijab will come later. There are certainly many other archaic laws: abortion is a crime, divorce and child custody laws are all in favor of men, women cannot be judges or leave the country without their husband’s or father’s permission.
And yet we are now witnessing the largest anti-government protests in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, crossing class and ethnic lines. Men have followed their sisters, wives or mothers into the streets. Dissent seeps through society in different ways: an old lady buying bread without her hijab, university students not showing up for class, shops closing, hashtags trending on Twitter, state television being hacked for a few seconds, graffiti Artists use them to mark cities with the names of those who have been killed. And although different slogans are created every day, “Woman, Life, Freedom” remains the beating heart of the movement.
This is not the first mass protest in Iran. In 1999, under then-President Mohammad Khatami, widespread student demonstrations erupted. In 2009, the Green Movement erupted when the public objected to allegedly rigged elections. The riots of 2017 and 2019 were largely focused on a post-sanctioned, ailing economy. Now the chants are directed at the supreme leader and the regime itself. Even Iranian state television offered a (relatively two-sided) debate on the concept of morality police. Some officials have suggested that the hijab may be a personal choice, while others advocate a continued approach. But Iranians and Iranian women have long fought this battle. And it’s not over yet.
https://www.ft.com/content/10f54419-2243-49be-9d94-01ee67e05850 Iran’s women have long fought this battle