From Headscarf Politics to Economic Protests, Iranian Women Are Leading From the Front

Whether going bareheaded in public or sneaking into sports stadiums, fearless females have been willing to confront the Islamic regime since it first came to power in 1979

This image of a young Iranian woman raising her hijab has become a symbol of protests rocking the country for the past week.
Iranian Twitter

A five-day protest by Iranian women against forcible wearing of the hijab is a little-known historical footnote to the world-changing Islamic Revolution that swept over Iran in 1979.

In a bold pushback against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s new, hard-line Islamic regime, Iranian women took to the streets of Tehran on International Women’s Day – March 8, 1979 – in a last-ditch attempt to retain their right to dress as they pleased. Over 100,000 women marched, decrying the prospect of anticipated new laws making the wearing of the hair-and-neck covering compulsory.

The women were immortalized by Iranian photographer Hengameh Golestan, whose images captured how the determined women crowded together under the falling snow, chanting and raising their fists defiantly, their faces angry and concerned, their black hair uncovered. Within a few years they would be shrouded in full-length black chadors, their government requiring that they conform with a strict Muslim interpretation of modesty, with violators facing arrest and prison.

Nearly 40 years later, the image of an anonymous young female demonstrator has captured the international imagination and become the new symbol of resistance and defiance in Iran. Like the women 38 years earlier, she too took to the streets bareheaded, slowly waving a white hijab on a pole on the first day of the economic protests in Iran.

Orly Noy, an Iranian-born writer and translator living in Tel Aviv, says this young woman personified “the essence of the courage to openly and publicly upset the distorted communal agenda. It is such a courageous defiance – to not only stand up, but to go further and say that corruption not only hits the public’s pocket but is much broader.”

It was fitting that a woman removing her hijab in protest became the symbol of demonstrations, which snowballed rapidly from a specific outcry over Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s failed economic policies that have resulted in higher food prices.

Iranians are hungry for far more than food, Noy believes. Their ever-growing displays of disgust and dissatisfaction are a cry of anger against the Islamic Republic for a far wider array of economic, political and social grievances. These include laws that discriminate against women in marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, and denies them basic freedoms – including the ability to dress as they please.

“Over the past 38 years, there have been no men-only protests in Iran. Women have been at the forefront,” Noy notes. “There is really nothing surprising about it: Women’s status is definitely a major part of the Iranian population feeling oppressed by the regime.”

A university student attending a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police, Iran, December 30, 2017.
/AP

Noy notes the image that galvanized the world during the last major eruption in Iran was that of a female martyr: 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, who became a symbol of opposition after her death – she was shot in the chest while protesting then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election victory in 2009 – was witnessed by millions worldwide on YouTube. Her name became a rallying cry for the Green Movement that was brutally put down by the Iranian regime.

Headscarf politics

One touchstone, which the women are forced to confront every morning when they dress, is “headscarf politics.” The white color of the hijab the young woman waved in the recent viral video indicates that her protest may be linked to #whitewednesdays, a social media campaign launched last June. That campaign features ordinary Iranian women wearing white (and some men wearing white in solidarity) and daring to removing their headscarves in public, photographing and filming themselves, then posting the shots online.

This effort was an outgrowth of a social protest movement called My Stealthy Freedom, created by expat Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad in 2014, aimed at liberating Iranian women by making hijab-wearing a personal choice.

Alinejad, who was forced out of the country following the 2009 protests, started a Facebook page on which women in Iran could post pictures of themselves hijab-free.

In this June 2009 file photo an unidentified female demonstrator protests the presidential election result, in Tehran, Iran.
Ben Curtis/AP

While images posted on My Stealthy Freedom were taken privately or even secretly, #whitewednesdays represented a much bolder and riskier step as women took off their hijabs in public, in some cases even recording the reactions around them.

While social media has given more global prominence to these individual acts of rebellion, the sentiments behind them are not new: Iranian women were resisting the so-called “morality police” by pushing the limits of modest and acceptable dress long before their images could be posted on social media. But the ability to quickly circulate footage of morality police grabbing insufficiently covered women in shopping malls and pushing them into vans has accelerated the outrage.

These vigilante campaigns by bold Iranian women haven’t been limited to their wardrobes, either – they’ve also taken aim at women’s exclusion from sports stadiums. Men are shown online helping to smuggle women in, with some women even resorting to cross-dressing to gain entrance.

The continuous pressure has born fruit – which is clear if you compare the way young Iranian women are able to dress today with 20 or even 10 years ago. Gone are the uniform black chadors, replaced by smaller, looser scarves with hair showing underneath and women daring to wear nail polish, makeup and color their hair – all once considered taboo.

The current unrest overshadowed what would otherwise have been a major headline coming out of Iran: the easing of modesty laws in the Iranian capital. In the final days of 2017, Iranian media reported that Tehran police would stop arresting and imprisoning women for the offense of uncovered hair. Instead, police authorities announced, women who violate modesty laws would be required to attend mandatory education classes.

In the New York Times last week, Iranian-American author Roya Hakakian theorized that Iran’s leaders were feeling pressured into relaxing their strictures on women as the result of reforms by their regional rival, Saudi Arabia. She wrote that “in the competition between the two regimes to earn the mantle of the more moderate Islamic alternative, women have been the beneficiaries.”

But it isn’t just geopolitics driving this phenomenon. It has been the determined resistance of Iranian women themselves – the same brand of determination that is bringing them to the forefront of the current fierce push for even more radical change.