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NY Times Op-Ed, Feb. 4, 2018
Why Iranian Women Are Taking Off Their Head Scarves
By NAHID SIAMDOUST
On Dec. 27, Vida Movahed stood bareheaded on a utility box on one of
Tehran’s busiest thoroughfares, waving her white head scarf on a stick.
Within days, images of the 31-year-old, who was detained and then
released a few weeks later, had become an iconic symbol.
In the weeks since Ms. Movahed’s peaceful protest of the compulsory
hijab, long one of the most visible symbols of the Islamic Republic,
dozens of women, and even some men, throughout Iran have followed her
lead. So far, at least 29 women in cities throughout the country have
These bold acts of defiance against the hijab are unprecedented in the
nearly 40-year history of the Islamic Republic, but a movement that may
have helped inspire them has been going on for years. It began on the
social media account of a Brooklyn-based Iranian journalist named Masih
Alinejad. In 2014, Ms. Alinejad started a Facebook page called “My
Stealthy Freedom,” urging women to post images of themselves without the
hijab in public places. Last year, she launched “White Wednesdays,”
inviting women to wear white scarves on Wednesdays in protest of the
compulsory hijab law. (Ms. Movahed carried out her protest on a
Wednesday and held a white scarf, though her actual allegiance to Ms.
Alinejad’s campaign is unknown).
Ms. Alinejad, who worked as a journalist in Iran before emigrating to
England in 2009, says her campaign came about by chance. She posted a
photo of herself driving her car in Iran without hijab and invited
others to share “hidden photos” of themselves on her Facebook page. The
overwhelming response — the page now has more than a million followers —
prompted her to focus more on the issue. “I was a political reporter,
but the women in Iran forced me to care about the issue of personal
freedoms,” she told me.
For Ms. Alinejad and the protesters, the struggle against the compulsory
hijab is about regaining a woman’s control over her own body, not a
matter of questioning the validity of the hijab itself. Now that
bareheaded women are joined in these acts by women who proudly wear the
full-body chador, it is clear that the movement on the ground is also
about a woman’s right to choose how to dress — something that, over the
past century, various Iranian leaders have tried to deny.
The founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, banned the hijab, in a
gesture of modernization, in 1936, which effectively put some women
under house arrest for years since they could not bear to be uncovered
in public. The leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, made the hijab compulsory in 1979.
Mass protests by women were unsuccessful in overturning the edict.
Pro-hijab campaigners invented the slogan “Ya rusari ya tusari,” which
means “Either a cover on the head or a beating,” and supervisory
“committees” — often composed of women in full chadors — roamed the
streets and punished women they deemed poorly covered. Those who opposed
the strict measure called these enforcer women “Fati commando,” a
derogatory term that combines Islam — in the nickname Fati for Fatemeh,
the prophet’s daughter — and vigilantism.
While the requirements have remained firmly in place, Iranian women have
been pushing the boundaries of acceptable hijab for years. Coats have
gotten shorter and more fitted and some head scarves are as small as
bandannas. This has not gone without notice or punishment: Hijab-related
arrests are common and numerous. In 2014, Iranian police announced that
“bad hijab” had led to 3.6 million cases of police intervention.
But for years, many women’s rights activists have written off the hijab
as secondary to other matters such as political or gender equality
rights. In 2006, the One Million Signatures for the Repeal of
Discriminatory Laws campaign, one of the most concerted efforts
undertaken by Iranian feminists to gain greater rights for women, barely
mentions the hijab. Iranian feminists have also been determined to
distance themselves from the Western obsession with the hijab, almost
overcompensating by minimizing its significance. Western feminists who
have visited Iran and willingly worn the hijab have also played a hand
in normalizing it.
But fighting discriminatory policies has not resulted in any real
change, as the crushed One Million Signatures campaign proved. So now
Ms. Alinejad and a younger generation of Iranian women are turning back
the focus on the most visible symbol of discrimination, which, they
argue, is also the most fundamental. “We are not fighting against a
piece of cloth,” Ms. Alinejad told me. “We are fighting for our dignity.
If you can’t choose what to put on your head, they won’t let you be in
charge of what is in your head, either.” In contrast, Islamic Republic
officials argue that the hijab bestows dignity on women.
The government has had a mixed response to the protests. On the day that
Vida Movahed climbed on the utility box to protest the hijab, Tehran’s
police chief announced that going forward, women would no longer be
detained for bad hijab, but would be “educated.” In early January, in
response to recent weeks of unrest throughout the country, President
Hassan Rouhani went so far as to say, “One cannot force one’s lifestyle
on the future generations.” In the past week, faced with a growing wave
of civil disobedience, Iran’s general prosecutor called the actions of
the women “childish” and the Tehran police said that those who were
arrested were “deceived by the ‘no-hijab’ campaign.”
But these young women appear undeterred. Their generation is empowered
by a new media ecosystem, one that not only unites protesters but also
helps to spread potent images of defiance. Ms. Alinejad believes that
the movement has already, in a sense, succeeded. “Women are showing that
they are no longer afraid,” she said. “We used to fear the government,
now it’s the government that fears women.”
Nahid Siamdoust is a postdoctoral associate of Iranian studies at Yale
University and the author of “Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics
of Music in Iran.”
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