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Mandatory Hijab Protested in Iran  by Ava Homa
Mandatory Hijab Protested in Iran

Published in Herizons Summer 2018 issue

Vida Movahedi stood quietly on a utility box in Iran’s capital, Tehran, in December 2017, holding a white head scarf aloft a stick. Her action was a protest against Iran’s compulsory hijab policy, and, since that time, countless women across the country have taken up her act of civil disobedience.

In doing so, they created a broad social and political movement that has united a diverse range of women.

Movahedi’s action took place as part of a series of broader country-wide protests against the government of President Hassan Rouhani, who has ruled the country since 2013.

After the photo of Movahedi, a mother in her 30s, went viral, she wasidentified and arrested. Soon, another woman mirrored her gesture. And then more women across the country, both young and old, followed her actions.

Officially, 35 women are confirmed to have been arrested in the Iranian capital since December for protesting the mandatory hijab policy. However, activists believe the actual number is much higher. Some protesters have been injured by police as they were pulled down from the utility boxes. One, Mariam Shariatmadari, a32-year-old college student, said that she was denied medical care after her arrest.

Support for women like Shariatmadari is growing. A new report by the Iranian government indicates that 49 percent of Iran’s population is against the compulsory hijab policy. First enacted in 1985, the law states that all women in Iran, regardless of their religious beliefs, must dress in accordance with Islamic teachings. As a result, hijab—the practice of wearing a veil or head scarf—has been used as a means for governments to enforce strict religious views.

Not surprisingly, the hijab requirement is also a symbol of women’s opposition to government and religious oppression. The women’s protests initiated the first-ever parliamentary discussions about the compulsory hijab law and how it relates to the personal freedom of women. Interestingly, even some Muslim religious leaders in Iran have sided with protesters, noting that the prophet Mohammad did not force women to cover up.

The Iranian government responded to the protests by remodeling many of Tehran’s telecom boxes so that they are more difficult to climb. Every year in Iran, thousands of Iranian women are jailed for having a “loose” hijab. Teenagers have been arrested by “morality police” at private mixed-gender parties for failing to wear a hijab. The law is used to prohibit young men from wearing shorts or sporting a Western look.

The move is unlikely to stop the protests. In fact, for the last 80 years, the issue of women and the hijab has been closely tied to political upheavals in Iran. In 1936, Iranian ruler Reza Shah forcefully removed women’s scarves in his bid to modernize the country, and in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini forced them back on women as part of an effort to Islamicize the nation. No one, it seems, thought to ask women what they wanted, and today many are speaking out in favour of ending the mandatory hijab law and in support of greater choices for women.

Prominent Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is among them. The honorary member of PEN Canada was incarcerated in 2009 and in June 2018 for defending political protestors in her country. Sotoudeh said in a phone interview for this article in May that the women now protesting mandatory hijab—many of whom are her clients—were initially accused of spreading immorality, presenting a sinful act, and violating the Islamic dress code.

The women were subsequently charged with “inciting prostitution,” a serious crime used to punish people who establish brothels. People who are found guilty can face up to 10 years in prison, but in this case the protesters faced two-year prison terms. Sotoudeh and her colleague appealed but no determination has been made by the courts.

“Iranian women have fought compulsory hijab for 40 years, but we lack international support,” Sotoudeh said. This is, in part, because Western feminists commonly mistake Iranian women’s protests against hijab as part of an anti-Islam movement.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi is another prominent Iranian who continues to oppose mandatory hijab wearing for Iranian girls and women. Ebadi was the first female judge in Iran, but after the country became an Islamic republic, the new government dismissed her, saying women were unfit for adjudication. In a phone interview from London, she said that the 1979 shift in Iran from a monarchy to an Islamic republic ncan be viewed as a “revolution of men against women.”

“We had organized a march on March 8, 1980,” in honour of International Women’s Day, Ebadi recalled. “The morning of the same day, the Ayatollah Khomeini said women who work in government offices should wear headscarves. In the afternoon, we chanted against the new rule, and were attacked by unofficial militia.”

Unfortunately, political groups—both groups who supported the new government and those who opposed it—refused to support the women’s protests.

At this time, women who refused to cover their heads were fi red and if their husbands were arrested, even self-supporting mothers had to atone to get their jobs to provide for their families.

Then, on February 23, 1994, an Iranian woman, Homa Darbari, set her body on fi re in a well-known centre in Tehran to protest compulsory hijab. Darbari was a physician who had returned from California to work in her

country, only to have her practice shut down because she refused to wear the hijab. She died shouting, “Long live freedom.”

Fighting mandatory hijab wearing continues to be part of a broader fight for greater equality and freedoms in Iran. In courts, a woman’s testimony is not equal to that of a man. And women can inherit only half of what male family members can. Family law dictates that, except for very strict cases, women are not entitled to custody of their children or to initiate divorce. In Iran, women cannot work, study or travel abroad without a husband’s permission. Girls and women are also prohibited from attending certain sporting events.

In 2006, a campaign to change discriminatory family laws led to the arrest of activists who were charged with acting against the national interest. In 2009, women were at the forefront of massive anti-government protests in Iran and many were detained.

Sotoudeh, who was part of the 2009 protests, said she is optimistic that women in Iran will see forced hijab wearing revoked if they secure the support of the global women’s movement. She said she owes her freedom to a global support movement to free her when she was imprisoned. Only a month after our interview, Sotoudeh was arrested again and is facing national security charges for representing women who protested the forced veiling.

“According to what I hear from women who visit my office, the protests will continue,” said Sotoudeh, who predicts that if forced veiling is revoked, it will signal an end to other discriminatory laws.

Masih Alinejad, a well-known activist based in New York who founded the social media campaign White Wednesdays, or Wednesdays against Compulsion, in May 2017 echoed Sotoudeh’s optimism.

“The government can crack down on a limited number of activists,” Alinejad said. “But when a majority of citizens who have been mindlessly following orders become conscious citizens who say no, the government will have to step back because they can arrest only so many people.”

The social media campaign and videos she has created and shared have already helped Iranian women understand they are not alone, and have made it easy for them to connect with like-minded supporters. Alinejad launched a social media project called Stealthy Freedom in 2015, in which hundreds of women posted photos of themselves momentarily removing their head scarves.

Social media posts suggest that these types of protests have unified Iranians who might otherwise have remained divided along the lines of religion, class, ethnicity and sexuality. The protests have appealed to heterosexuals and the LGBTQ community, the wealthy residents of the capital, oppressed Kurdish women, secular Iranians, Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Zoroastrians and other religious minorities.

A photo of a Kurdish woman in folk dress in the city of Mariwan, northwest Iran, with her headscarf on a stick demonstrated that the compulsory hijab protest has spread among the Kurds in Iran. Kurds are one of the most suppressed ethnic minorities in Iran and make up almost half of Iran’s political prisoners. Another widely shared photo is that of a woman wearing a hijab and acknowledging the rights of women who do not wish to cover up.

Despite the constraints they face, Iranian women are among the most highly educated in the Middle East. They have fought for gender equality for 100 years and will continue to do so until their aims are achieved.©

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