Vanishing Veil: Anti-Hijab Protests in Iran
It’s a December morning in Tehran. A young woman marches to the Enghelab Street- a landmark in Central Tehran to the coming of the Islamic Revolution. Determined to assert her identity and freedom, she takes off her hijab and waves it around in protest. The video of her action goes viral on the internet and within days, she is reported missing. As new reports appear of her arrest and detention, Vida Movahed, a 31 year old woman, is transformed into the Girl of Enghelab Street.
The imagery is powerful, it was the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought forth a compulsory hijab rule for women in Iran. At the time, the hijab was seen by many, including women, as a symbol of ending western oppression, personified by a heretic Shah who ruled over the country with American help. 28 years since the revolution, the story has changed. In a society transformed through education, a compulsory head scarf for women is now seen by many as a symbol of patriarchal notions, enforced by a religious orthodoxy. Movahed’s actions have since become a clarion call for protests across Iran. Dubbed #WhiteWednesday, the protests have since led to several hundred arrests even as The Girl of Enghelab Street was released from custody.
It may seem absurd or even petty to many people out of the immediate context of Iranian politics for the police to arrest people for not wearing a piece of cloth on their heads, and for the women to risk arrests and psychological torture in jails by not wearing one. However, Masih Alinejad, a journalist living abroad in a self-imposed exile since 2009 told Reuters,
“We are fighting against the most visible symbol of oppression.”
The questions these women are putting up for the Islamic Republic of Iran to deal with are not being raised for the first time, and should be seen in a continuity of previous women’s movements in Iran.
The History of Struggle
During the 1905 Revolution, women fought in streets, joined underground activities against foreign forces, boycotted imported foreign goods, participated in demolition of a Russian Bank and helped in raising funds to build the National Bank. The success of the strategy of women’s mobilization in contributing to the revolution along with increasing awareness of the oppression faced by women led some to establish secret societies, to discuss women’s issues. Such platforms, locally called anjomans or dowrebs, served to disseminate as well as access first-hand accounts of women’s lived experiences. Setbacks to the constitutional movement and suppression of activists, along with absence of a separate movement for women’s rights meant that these groups had to retreat into oblivion.
Reza Shah’s Period (1925-1941)
"[He] was the very embodiment of a traditional masculine character,”
says Ashraf Pahlavi, grandson of Reza Shah, who ruled Iran from 1925 to 1941. Pahlavi’s rise to power as the Shah of Iran and the nature of his regime brought mixed changes for women in Iran. As a patrimonial despot, he was against anti-conformist ideas, including women’s rights. The continual opposition to independent women organizations by the ulemas and the government led to the imposition of a ban on Jamiat-e Nesvaan-e Vatankhaab-e-Iran aka The Patriotic Women’s League of Iran.1934 saw the Shah initiate the establishment of a government controlled women’s organization Kaanoon-e Baanovaan (The Ladies Center). It was created not with the intent of providing equal opportunities to women, but for projecting the image of a “modern Iran.
Perhaps the logical next step in this figurative unveiling of this modern Iran, was the unveiling of the hijab. A 1936 decree banned the wearing of a hijab by women. Progressive as it may sound, many have argued that the enforcement of a dress code for women, whether with or without the hijab, did nothing to the principle issue of autonomy and choice for them as individuals. Furthermore, the inorganic nature of the step created an undercurrent of resentment among the orthodox ulema which would simmer for decades before leading to the unraveling of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1979.
A New Shah- Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1942-1978)
The Anglo-Soviet Invasion in 1941 led to the abdication of Reza Shah and the coronation of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who would become the last ruler of the dynasty. Under the influence of European ideas and with a weak government, new women’s organisations affiliated with political parties arose, women’s demands for abolition of polygamy and the veil, education and freedom were voiced more freely and began to gain traction.
The CIA engineered deposition of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh, something the Shah is believed to have condoned, meant that the Shah had to, for his own survival, purge opposition parties, which included women organizations. This was followed by a conscious effort at the de-politicisation of women’s demands. The women’s movement in Iran, hereafter morphed into an apolitical, charitable, educational movement, whose demands were generally conformist, with the exception of the demand of women’s enfranchisement- which was granted as part of the White Revolution.
The Revolutionary Period (1978-1981)
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 saw an uprising of the ulemas against the monarchy in place, ending with the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The revolution would not have succeeded without the involvement of women, as the Shah’s White Revolution had, despite its shortcomings, granted women a substantial hold in the country’s politics. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic revivalist opposition leader succeeded in mobilizing women on the lines of religious revivalism, in what is perhaps one of the most intriguing sociological development of the 20th century.
Young women, in substantial numbers, prioritized Islamic Nationalism even at the cost of certain losses in personal freedom. The “chador” ( a loose and fully covering outfit) became a symbol of defiance to a westernized dictatorship. Solidarity with women who wanted to wear the hijab and the chador but were barred from doing so under the “modern” Pahlavi regime was one of the most powerful drivers of the revolution. It reflected the shortcomings of inorganic change and what began as a movement for personal choice was soon spun into the ulema dictating dressing norms.
The post-revolutionary period was rife with regulations on dress codes for women, imposition of restrictions on their agencies, speech and even appearances in public. Each of these changes was underwent post hoc rationalization through the prism of religious nationalism. A female vigilante group, Dokhtar’an-e Zaynab, was constituted to regulate and ensure the observance of new diktats. Boundaries separating the two sexes were erected, women were barred from several academic streams, public appointments, and even from participating in the entertainment industry, playing sports or, and why not, entering stadiums.
The new Sharia laws gave men absolute right to divorce their wives without any justification and an upper hand in the custody of the children. A woman’s “true status” was officially confirmed when the evidentiary value of a woman’s statement in court was reduced to half of that provided by a man.
Naturally, there were protests against all this. However, with a wave of religious nationalism sweeping the country and the ulema at the peak of their popularity, any narrative that was seen as not confirming to the regime’s ideas was considered to be seditious or worse, treasonous. The International Women's Day Protests against the changes in 1979 were met with brutal suppression and drove the movement underground.
The Contemporary Times: Lessons Learnt
Since the protests, and until the White Wednesday protests, women’s issues had been the preserve of individual attempts alone. Individual women fighting their own fight in their own right, independent of a coordinated campaign fought for their rights- also reflective in the Girl of Enghelab Street.
Of late, this has been changing, as Farzaneh Milani writes in her Lipstick Politics of Iran,
“Lipstick is not just lipstick in Iran. It transmits a political message. It is a weapon.”
Such a statement is echoed by Alinejad,
“These women are saying, It is enough - it is the 21st century and we want to be our true selves.”
Iranian police have said that the 29 women who took part in the campaign have been arrested in Iran for protesting against the country’s compulsory hijab rules. Such a crackdown on non-violent protests underscored that the state is very serious about ending these protests. The Ayatollah led regime now confronts a reality that is the inversion of what Shah faced in 1979. An educated, progressive middle class that had, in 1979, willingly sided with the Islamic nationalists is now redefining Iranian values. This redefinition will necessarily be incongruous to the conception of state that the Ayatollah has in mind, the question is, who will win the battle of narratives?