Iran’s women were the Islamic Republic’s first target for repression. This is the newest chapter in their struggle to win back their rights.
The heart-wrenching death of Mahsa Amini in police custody on September 16 and subsequent outbreak of protests in cities across Iran, have stunned the world. Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Iranian Kurdistan, was arrested for improper veiling by morality police while vacationing in Tehran. As spectacular as the demonstrations have been, however, this latest development in Iranians’ struggle against religious totalitarianism—and women’s prominent role in it—is the logical outcome of four decades of a regime that denies women fundamental rights. The history of mandatory veiling in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in fact, illustrates both the regime’s totalitarianism and how that totalitarianism has ironically nurtured a liberal-democratic worldview within Iranian society.
In 1979, almost immediately after declaring victory, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1979–89) moved to bring control of women’s bodies under the state: His first legislative act was to mandate female government employees to veil. The Islamic regime’s drive to reinvent Iranian women and how they appear in society, criminalizing those who did not adhere to Khomeini’s idea of female homo islamicus, captures perfectly the regime’s totalitarian essence. Indeed, the objective of the mandatory hijab was to remove autonomous, independent women from the public eye and replace them with the representation of veiled religious devotees.
For the many women who worried that the progress toward gender equality made under the monarchy would be lost, the hijab decree confirmed their fears. On 8 March 1979, some fifteen-thousand women gathered in Tehran to celebrate International Women’s Day, chanting slogans such as “Freedom is neither Eastern nor Western; it is Universal,” “Liberty or Death,” and “We Iranian women will not remain enchained.” The protests lasted for several days in Tehran and other cities. Alluding to Khomeini and the authorities who had staged their takeover by misleading the public, the demonstrators said:
We do not want the hijab. If you wanted to impose the hijab, you should have told us before; we made the revolution to have equal rights for men and women … We want to fight back; we have to speak up right now for our rights … First they impose the hijab and then other discrimination will come; they will impose restrictions on marriage and divorce, and finally they will force us to stay at home.
In 1983, the hijab became compulsory for all women. But the government had already made it impossible for unveiled women to keep their government jobs or even to set foot in government offices. Women who defied the rule, even before it was the law of the land, risked having acid thrown on them or being beaten, flogged, arrested, fined, humiliated, or fired from their jobs. The state’s extreme violence succeeded in forcing all women to veil.
During the Islamic regime’s first decade, women were gradually stripped of their rights, excluded from the public sphere, instrumentalized as propaganda tools, and paraded in officially organized demonstrations and Friday prayers. But an era of reform that would last eight years began in 1997. During that time, women’s rights activists began trying to recapture some of their lost social status.
In 1979, such activists had warned that the mandatory veil would be a prelude to women’s total exclusion from public spaces, but in the 1990s they opted to leave the issue alone as a concession to the government. Instead, they focused on regaining some lost rights, including the rights to initiate divorce and obtain child custody, and on securing a ban on child marriage (they did manage to get the marriage age for girls raised to thirteen from nine, but nine-year-old girls could still be wed with a judge’s approval) through petitions and dialogue with the regime. The state made no concessions in return, however, and used oppression and violence to squelch the activists’ demands, even those as benign as allowing women to enter sport stadiums. By the end of the 2000s, the activists had reached a dead end.
The New Wave
It was not long before the regime met with a new, more creative, and more assertive form of female resistance. For four decades, women on their own—silently and unorganized—pushed back against mandatory veiling. For example, young women would don colors that had been banished from public spaces and wear the most daring, subversive type of veil. No laws changed. But many women boldly ignored the dress code. It is against the backdrop of this discrete, yet widespread and persistent, resistance that the most recent resurgence of women’s fight against the mandatory hijab—and its highly original, modern, and subversive form—should be understood.
It started in June 2014, when the courageous pro-reform journalist Masih Alinejad took a selfie without a veil, her hair flying in the wind, and posted it on her Facebook page. She was in London at the time, having left in 2009 after her reporting on corruption put her in danger in Iran. That Facebook post sparked one of Iranian civil society’s biggest challenges to the regime yet. After posting the photograph, Alinejad told me:
I received messages from Iranian women saying: Don’t publish these pictures because we envy you. Soon after I published another picture of myself driving in my hometown in Iran, again without a scarf. And I said to Iranian women: I bet you can do the same. Many of them started to send me their photos without hijab, so I created a page called My Stealthy Freedom (MSF).
What began as a private act eventually became a political statement. Alinejad’s MSF Facebook page made new, and extremely subversive, use of the internet. She and the women who posted selfies sans hijab on the page created an alternative public sphere that was immune to police assault. By making cyberspace the primary location of their actions, they succeeded not only in publicizing their discontent but also, and more importantly, in breaking the regime’s monopoly on the public narrative about women. This was new.
The internet allowed these women to do what their mothers and sisters could not in 1979. Within just a few years, the My Stealthy Freedom page had more than a million followers. Most of the women who joined the campaign did so independently. They were not organized, as there is no way for women or any other group to organize in Iran. With MSF, there was no network to be disrupted by security forces. Any woman anywhere holding a camera could be a rebel, if just for a few furtive minutes. The state was powerless to stop them.
In May 2017, Alinejad, together with some active MSF supporters inside Iran, launched a new and riskier campaign, the White Wednesday Campaign. With it, the acts of civil disobedience moved from cyberspace to the public square. On Wednesdays, women involved in the campaign would wear a white headscarf, take it off in the street or in their cars, and film themselves while doing so. This was more than a short pause for a picture. The point was for women to be themselves in society—and to keep on walking or driving and see what happened. Their supporters, both men and women, would sport either a white T-shirt or white bracelet so that those who opposed mandatory veiling could identify one another. It was a way to overcome the impossibility of lawfully organizing.
In response, the regime intensified its repression, punishing women who refused to veil in public with fines, 72 lashes, and jail sentences ranging from two months to a year. Alinejad herself became the target of a nasty intimidation and defamation campaign and, years later, a kidnapping attempt. But she remained undeterred, using her Facebook and Twitter accounts to keep international audiences informed and moving her activism to Telegram and Instagram (where she has eight-million followers), both available to Iranians without VPNs. In September 2017, Alinejad launched My Camera Is My Weapon, a new campaign that had women filming the harassment and assaults they suffered for refusing to wear the hijab or simply for being women. The campaign yielded a series of videos that captured the morality police’s brutality and women’s resistance to it.
The White Wednesday Campaign reached a climax on 27 December 2017, when Vida Movahed stood on a utility box on Enghelab (Revolution) Street in Tehran, took off her white veil, tied it to a stick, and waved it to the crowd. Nobody knew who she was, not even Alinejad. Movahed, who was arrested and fined, had acted completely on her own, without planning or organization. The video of her act of civil disobedience went viral, becoming a public statement that could not be ignored. In the following months, scores of women (known as “the girls of Revolution Street” on social media), and men from different walks of life emulated Movahed, and millions saw their videos.
On 8 March 2018, as Iran’s morality forces were struggling to contain rebellious citizens, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, gave a speech explaining the “paradigm of Muslim women,” claiming that the veil is meant to protect them from becoming sexual objects. He said that Western liberalism promotes female nudity to make women the “manifestation of consumption, ornamentation, exhibitionism, and to serve as instruments of male arousal … The other ideologies that [Western liberals] preach—for example, issues of gender justice and the like are just empty words.” Not only was the speech a reminder that control of women’s bodies is the cornerstone of the regime, but it also heralded the intensification of state violence against those opposing the compulsory hijab. By July 2021, the state seemed to have contained the “girls of Revolution Street,” but the battle of narratives raged on.
That the daughters of the Islamic revolution have focused on fighting the mandatory veil is not surprising. It is a sign of the increasing prevalence of liberal-democratic principles in the new political culture of Iran. The women who protested against the mandatory veil in 1979 were abandoned by political groups and parties, because at the time those who controlled the political discourse did not believe in women’s free choice—a glaring indication of illiberal culture in revolutionary Iran.
After years of forced veiling, Iranian women are done letting the state decide who they are in society. In skirmishes with morality police, defiant women refuse to be told what to wear. And when they are told they must abide by the law of the land, they remind their persecutors that unjust laws require civil disobedience. When the police say, “this is Islam,” the women respond, “I don’t believe in God. You want to forcibly take me to paradise, [but] I am not Muslim.” In one sentence they are claiming freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the right to define their own identities, and the right to participate in making the laws by which they are governed. These polemics constitute a spectacular deployment of political philosophy right in the middle of street clashes with the police.
When Vida Movahed stood on that utility box in December 2017, there was also another social explosion enflaming the country—huge protests against the high cost of living in more than a hundred cities. Slogans chanted during these protests and the following uprising in 2019, were all signaling popular demands for the end of religious rule in Iran, but the world chose to focus only on economic discontent, and paid little attention to the loud and clear political message of these successive uprisings.
There is a lesson to be learned in Iran’s history of protests and the government’s violent suppression of them. At first glance, it appears that, since 1979, the government has succeeded in putting down one protest after another. But those victories are illusory. Each one has triggered tectonic changes in the cultural fabric of Iranian society—changes that have slowly but steadily sapped the ideological foundations of the Islamic regime.
When thousands of women went into the street to oppose the will of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, Iran’s political parties and intelligentsia scoffed at them, and Khomeini had no trouble mobilizing the masses against them. His vigilantes chanted the slogan “Either veil or a blow to the head.” In those days, three-quarters of Iranians approved of the veil. Forty years later when White Wednesday campaigners were defying the morality police, however, they had the silent sympathy of bystanders; when Vida Movahed and the “girls of Revolution Street” stood on utility boxes and removed their veils, bystanders filmed them and sent the videos to Masih Alinejad and news outlet outside Iran so that Iranians and the world could see the defiant women of Iran. A 2020 survey of fifty-thousand Iranians found that 75 percent opposed the mandatory veil and believed that individuals should decide how they dress.
Mahsa Amini’s tragic death has transformed those sympathetic but passive bystanders into angry and active supporters of the fight against mandatory veiling. Her name has become a codename for radical change. Women are burning their veils in public squares, and they are being cheered for it and protected by the crowds. They are burning the regime’s main “paradigm,” before the eyes of the whole world and chanting the slogan “Woman, life, liberty,” which celebrates all that is denied by the Islamic regime’s ideology.
The regime is responding to the protests with force, and the death toll is rising. Whatever happens next, the September 2022 uprising in the name of women’s freedom to choose is a turning point in Iran and the history of the Islamic world. Ordinary women and men are tired of the suffering imposed by a totalitarian regime, and they are demanding change. Led by women, Iranians are reinventing their culture by weaving liberal values into its fabric.
Ladan Boroumand is a historian and the cofounder and senior fellow at the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran. She is currently writing a book on the tectonic social changes taking place within the Islamic Republic of Iran.
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Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy
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