Iranian women defying hijab in public

Iranian Women's Year-Long 'No' To Hijab Changing Society

Thursday, 09/21/2023

The protest movement in Iran in the past year did not topple the regime but succeeded in making a serious dent into one of its important tenets, the compulsory hijab.

“I will not put up a profile picture with mandatory hijab just to be allowed to join our WhatsApp work group,” this was the message Sara, an aspiring Iranian engineer working in Tehran, recently conveyed to her manager, disregarding the potential risk of dismissal.

Concerned for her safety and security, she asked her real name and the title of the Iranian startup company that employs her not to be disclosed. “I much rather have no profile picture than one with hijab,” read the next line of Sara’s message. 

She was, moreover, sternly admonished to play by the book and refrain from posting any photos without hijab on her X account or to face possible dismissal from work.

"We Iranian women are not reverting to our pre-Mahsa era," she firmly asserted, alluding to Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman whose tragic death on September 16, 2022, resulted from injuries sustained in police custody of Tehran’s hijab police. Her passing ignited a fresh wave of anti-regime protests throughout Iran and gave rise to the globally recognized "Woman, Life, Freedom" movement advocating for democracy in the Middle East.

The prosperous company where Sara is employed holds significant concerns regarding potential actions by regime authorities. Informed sources have revealed to Iran International that these authorities might conduct office inspections throughout Iran to ensure strict adherence to the mandatory hijab law among both management of private firms and their female employees.

Flabbergasted by the staunch defiance of women against the compulsory hijab law and on the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death, the Iranian regime has been playing all its cards to deter women from taking off their hijab in public, but with very little success.

The streets were the scene of the most bizarre incident following Mahsa’s death: setting fire to headscarves as the symbol of more than four decades of enslaving women and holding hostage their most basic freedoms as to how to cover themselves and have control over their bodies.

This becomes particularly significant when considering that Iran is a Shia Muslim country where, following the 1979 “Islamic Revolution”, the clerical establishment mandated hijab and outlined the highest aspirations for an Iranian woman as being a “devout and revolutionary” mother and a “faithful and obedient” wife.

This time however, after decades of various campaigns, resistance, and enduring the harshest forms of suppression and imprisonment, women have courageously emerged in public spaces without headscarves. They are boldly proclaiming “Woman, Life, Freedom” a modern and forward-thinking slogan that has profoundly shaken the entire nation and indeed the world, drawing an overwhelming wave of empathy and support for the women's movement in Iran.

“I think Iranian women showed an unprecedented level of courage from the onset of the Women, Life, Freedom movement. They burned their headscarves, defying baton and bullets and said no to hijab despite being fearful of possible acid attacks, arrest, and sexual assault (by the regime agents),” said Sogand, a prominent Iranian women's rights activist, who asked not to be identified by her real name out of fear of retribution from the regime.

Elaborating more on her perspective regarding the direction that the Iranian women’s movement has taken after the death of Mahsa, she maintained that the bravery for removing and burning headscarves in public is not something that could either vanish or be stripped away from women easily. It is this enduring valor on the part of Iranian women that has instilled fear in the regime to the point that it constantly issues new orders and directives aimed at further tightening the enforcement of the compulsory hijab.

The top brass of Iran’s establishment has advocated for viciously severe punishment for women who opt to remove their hijab, including actions such as flagging, imposing heavy prison sentences as well as substantial financial penalties, and even depriving them from receiving medical care, banking services, or the opportunity to take part in the university entrance exam known as Concours.

Despite the ongoing intimidation campaign orchestrated by the clerical regime, many women's rights activists, including Sogand, firmly believe that it will ultimately fail to force women to retreat.

She emphasized that any additional acts of violence against women in connection with the mandatory hijab could further inflame public anger and potentially lead to a response similar to the widespread protests that erupted across Iran following Mahsa's tragic death.

The same belief is echoed by Zahra, a Tehran-based journalist who is identified by a pseudonym for protecting her safety. Recalling harrowing moments of terror after encountering a group of hardline plainclothes regime agents in southwest Tehran. They aggressively yelled at her and even threatened her physically for not covering her hair, and she clarified that other disobedient women likely share the same sense of terror and fear.

However, the unspoken and invisible bond they feel when passing by another unveiled woman with a smile on her face and a meaningful eye contact in silence is what motivates them to persist. The courage to resist the fear and intimidation that the regime seeks to instill in women's hearts is what truly makes them the everyday heroines they are, according to Zahra's perspective.

Two Iranian lawyers talking to Iran International on condition of anonymity, highlighted the case of one of their clients in Tehran who, as a government employee, refused to comply with the mandatory hijab law. Even after being charged and suspended from work several months ago, she stood her ground, asserting that she would not appear in court wearing hijab. 

Discussing another female client whose small restaurant has been sealed twice in the past year due to her refusal to adhere to the hijab law, one of the attorneys remarked: “As a single mother, my client is currently facing significant financial hardship. However, whenever she visits my office, she arrives without a veil and firmly declares that she will not back down.”

In the year following Mahsa’s tragic death, Iranian society has also witnessed huge cracks in the thick and tall walls of the patriarchal system, which is deeply ingrained in the minds and collective consciousness of Iranians. This system has received persistent and substantial backing from the misogynistic and sexist regime. However, Iranian men have begun to publicly voice support for women’s human rights and freedoms by joining hands with them in rejecting mandatory hijab, which has turned women’s free will into a battlefield for the Iranian regime as it attempts to export its hardline ideologies.

Numerous women’s activists including Mahya Ostovar, an Iranian lecturer at the University of Galway in Ireland, firmly believe that the Woman, Life, Freedom movement has succeeded in bringing about a revolution, most of all in the minds and viewpoints of the rest of the society. It has motivated many to stand for women's cause and to advocate for a democratic Iran, free from the grip of a brutal clerical regime.

One year into the birth of this new movement, Iranian women have displayed remarkable resilience and determination. Collectively, they have boldly confronted the Iranian regime, showing no signs of backing down.

Considering this unwavering determination, Ostovar conveyed her belief that the Woman, Life, Freedom movement signifies the culmination of decades of women's activism and their fight for their rights. Consequently, it is not anticipated to regress, but rather continue and ultimately contribute to the downfall of the Iranian regime.

(This is an article by Maryam Moqaddam and Masoud Kazemi, journalists at Iran International)

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