Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iranian Women and the Fight Against Mandatory Hijab

Iranian Women
Hundreds of Iranian woman demonstrate in front of presidential office against the clergy order for all Iranian female employees of government offices to put on veils at work, in Tehran 05 July 1980. EPU FILES / AFP

Dana Hourany

While on a family trip to Tehran, 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian Mahsa Amini was arrested on September 13 for wearing an “improper” hijab.

Her father, Amjad Amini, reported her death two weeks later and accused authorities of omitting the truth behind her passing.

The authorities have claimed that Amini died from a heart attack followed by a coma despite her family reporting no pre-existing heart condition, according to an Iranian pro-reform platform, Emtedad news. Accusations by eyewitnesses and relatives point that the victim was severely beaten and struck on the head leading to her collapse and need for medical attention prior to her death.

The incident sparked nationwide protests where women took to the streets to unleash their rage for over 40 years of restrictions on their freedoms. In an act of fearlessness, courage, and rage, Iranian women were seen letting go of their hijab, waving it in the air, and crying “death to the dictator.” Scenes of dancing ensued as women burnt down their headscarves and demonstrators set ablaze a large billboard of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Iranian women have been protesting against mandatory hijab wearing since the rise of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. However, observers say that Western media has just started to catch on the figures, with the narrative being largely one-sided.

“Silence from the global left punctures global solidarity and gives right-wing groups the freedom to hijack this discourse. More effort should be done to draw attention to Iranian women” US-based Iranian activist and writer, Arash Azizi, told Fanack.

Not the first time, not the last

Islam is widely practiced in the MENA region but is carried with distinct approaches. Some cultures frown upon the hijab, others encourage it and authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Iran make it mandatory.

The hijab, in its essence, is a symbol of modesty, piety, and devotion to God. Although it is not strict to the Islamic faith and is supposed to be a tool of empowerment, the Islamic Revolution turned the sacred religious practice into a tool of oppression and submission.

Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has long shamed unveiled women. He declared to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1979 that “the women who contributed to the revolution were and are women who wear modest clothes.”

He added “these coquettish women, who wear makeup and put their necks, hair and bodies on display in the streets, did not fight the Shah. They have done nothing righteous. They do not know how to be useful, neither to society nor politically or vocationally. And the reason is because they distract and anger people by exposing themselves.”

The Iranian regime draws its obligations from the Islamic Sharia law to justify its actions. However, Quranic texts regarding the hijab are ambiguous as they advocate for veiling one’s senses “from anything that may lessen one’s innocence.”

The Iranian regime, on the other hand, sees the hijab as a weapon of political rebellion against the West that the Iranian revolutionaries deemed “evil.” Thus the morality police were created to patrol the streets and scrutinize women’s “appropriate” clothing. Once caught, women are faced with harsh penalties ranging from imprisonment to intense lashing.

Nevertheless, Iranian women have fought and resisted the hijab law for over forty years with movements such as the White Wednesday and Tehran’s Girl on Enghelab street. The former was a social media campaign where women posted pictures of themselves wearing white headscarves as a means of protesting in 2017. The latter was a wave of anti-government protests sparked by a girl silently waving her hijab on a stick above her unveiled hair in 2018.

“Death to Khamenei”

Iranian Women
A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran shows people gathering during a protest for Mahsa Amini in Tehran on September 19, 2022. AFP

As men and women storm the streets of Iran chanting “death to Khamenei“- Iran’s supreme leader – the Iranian government shut down mobile networks and restricted access to Instagram and WhatsApp.

Similar blackouts were reported during mass protests in 2019 when fuel prices soared by 300% and the government limited internet access to hamper media coverage and deflate the movement.

Dozens have been killed during the first week of demonstrations and the regime is plotting harsher crackdown measures. However, protestors remain unfazed. A group of demonstrators were spotted burning down Khamenei’s statue in his hometown, Mashhad, in addition to the banner of slain commander Qassem Soleimani in his birthplace city of Kerman.

“Oppressing women is central to the regime’s longevity. Women represent more than half of society so the hijab rule is about controlling public spaces and making sure the regime remains untouched by controlling possible dissent,” Azizi said.

The writer adds that the regime is unpopular within a large majority of Iranian society and recognizes the need to cement its rule by forcing its population into submission. In a recent move, officials have announced their plan to install surveillance cameras in public places to identify and punish women who reject the mandatory hijab rule. Those who post photos of themselves unveiled on social media will be barred from social rights that include but are not limited to being barred from entering government offices, banks, or riding on public transportation, for up to a year.

“Many Iranian men believe this regime will be brought down by women. They do most of the fighting and are on the frontlines of this battle. Just imagine their lives, constantly threatened and dehumanized without receiving their most basic rights,” Azizi said.

The writer says current protests seem more coordinated and could reap a strong response from the authorities. However, predicting potential outcomes is difficult as authorities rush to contain the situation by organizing counter-protests.

Sporadic global attention

Nasrin Parvaz is a member of the first generation to launch an opposition movement against the hijab rule. Her post-revolutionary activism led to detention, torture, and imprisonment for eight years.

She was only seven years old when her mom forced her to wear the veil to go to school. A rebel from a young age, she was able to channel the energy into the streets of Iran. Upon her release in 1990, Nasrin was hunted down by the Islamic guards that halted her activism and executed her friends. She has lived in London since 1994 after seeking asylum there.

“Now things are different and the protests are more intense. One main development is the presence of men supporting women on the streets. We didn’t have that before and I salute them for their coordination and group work,” Parvaz told Fanack.

“Many activists back then refused to confess to ‘wrong-doing’ that the authorities wanted to extort to release us from prison. Our will and integrity remain as strong today as it was in the 80s. This is not a movement against hijab, this is an uprising against a corrupt system and hijab is just a guise,” she added.

Silent West

While anger swelled in the streets of Iran, President Ebrahim Raisi headed to New York City to address the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Iranian activists and journalists have criticized the visit and called the US government to take action against the Iranian delegation but received no answer.

“Shame on a Western government that agrees to meet with president Raisi. They should not enable them and welcome them into their states. Close down Iranian embassies and send them home, otherwise, it looks like you’re supporting the oppressors,” Parvaz said.

Azizi says that people across the world should organize protests in front of Iranian embassies and join efforts with activists against the regime. He adds that several initiatives exist to support Iranian women as the fight should not be solely left to the Iranian people.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that he would activate the firm’s satellite internet service, Starlink after US secretary of state Antony Blinken announced that the US will relax internet sanctions in support of Iranian protestors.

Anonymous hacker collective claimed to have hacked state-affiliated websites, and protestors from Beirut to Washington DC mobilized in support of the Iranian demonstrations.

“Seyyed Ali (Khamenei) will be toppled in this bloody year,” protestors chanted in Tehran as clashes intensified between security forces and demonstrators across the country.

“Our women have suffered enough throughout their lives and it’s time for them to get justice,” Azizi said.

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