Written by AMIR-HUSSEIN RADJY
A young woman climbs onto the roof of a car in the middle of Mashhad, a conservative Iranian city famous for its Islamic shrines. She takes off her headscarf and starts chanting “Death to the dictator!” Nearby protesters join in and cars honk their horns in support.
For many Iranian women, it’s an image that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, said Fatemeh Shams, who grew up in Mashhad.
“When you see Mashhad women taking to the streets and burning their veils publicly, that is truly a revolutionary change. Iranian women are ending a veiled society and compulsory veiling,” she said.
Iran has seen multiple outbreaks of protests in recent years, many fueled by anger over economic hardship. But the new wave is furious with something that is central to the identity of Iran’s cleric-ruled state: compulsory veiling.
The Islamic Republic of Iran requires women to cover up in public, including wearing a “hijab” or headscarf that is meant to completely hide hair. Many Iranian women, especially in big cities, have long played cat and mouse with the authorities, with younger generations wearing baggy scarves and outfits that push the boundaries of conservative dress.
This game can end in tragedy. A 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested by morality police in the capital Tehran and died in custody. His death sparked nearly two weeks of widespread unrest which has reached every Iranian province and brought to the streets students, middle-class professionals and working-class men and women.
Iranian state television suggested that at least 41 protesters and police were killed. A tally of official statements by authorities from the Associated Press showed at least 13 dead and more than 1,400 protesters arrested.
A young woman from Tehran, who said she had continuously participated in last week’s protests in the capital, said the violent response by security forces had largely reduced the size of the protests.
“People are still taking to the streets to find a meter of space to shout their rage but they are immediately and violently chased, beaten and taken into custody, so they try to mobilize in groups of four to five people and a once they find an opportunity, they run together and start protesting,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The biggest protest they (Iranian women) are doing right now is taking off their headscarves and burning them,” she added. “It’s a women’s movement first and foremost, and the men support them in the background.”
A writer and rights activist since her studies at the University of Tehran, Shams took part in the mass anti-government protests of 2009 before having to flee Iran.
But this time it’s different, she says.
Waves of violent repression against protests over the past 13 years “have disillusioned the traditional classes of society” who were once the backbone of the Islamic Republic, said Shams, who now lives in the United States.
The fact that there have been protests in conservative cities like Mashhad or Qom – the historic center of Iran’s clergy – is unprecedented, she said.
“Every morning I wake up and think, is this really happening? Women making bonfires with veils?
Modern Iranian history has been full of unexpected twists.
Iranian women who grew up before the monarchy was overthrown in 1979 remember a country where women were largely free to choose how they dressed.
People of all stripes, from leftists to religious extremists, participated in the revolution that overthrew the shah. But in the end, it was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers who ended up taking power and creating an Islamic state led by Shia clerics.
On March 7, 1979, Khomeini announced that all women must wear the hijab. The next day, International Women’s Day, tens of thousands of unveiled women marched in protest.
“It was really the first counter-revolutionary movement,” said Susan Maybud, who took part in these marches and then worked as a press assistant for the foreign press. “It wasn’t just about the hijab, because we knew what was coming next, taking away women’s rights.” She didn’t even own a hijab back then, she recalls.
“What you see today is not something that just happened. There is a long history of women protesting and challenging authority” in Iran.
“History and recent events in Iran leave no doubt. Women’s desire to be free to choose could not be strangled or silenced,” said Farzaneh Milani, an Iranian scholar and professor in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Virginia.
Iranian society has struggled to grant women the right to choose their own dress and veil since the mid-19th century, when the poet and religious scholar Tahereh appeared dramatically unveiled before a congregation of men in 1848, a said Milani. A few years after its unveiling, public authorities executed Tahereh.
A century or more ago, strict veiling was largely limited to the Iranian upper classes. Most of the women lived in rural areas and worked, “so the hijab wasn’t exactly possible” for them, said Esha Momeni, an Iranian activist and scholar affiliated with UCLA’s Department of Gender Studies.
Many women wore a “roosari” or casual headscarf which “is part of traditional clothing rather than having a very religious significance”.
Throughout the late 19th century, women were at the forefront of street protests, she said. During Iran’s first democratic uprising in 1905, many cities and towns formed local women’s rights committees.
This was followed by a period of top-down secularizing reforms under military officer-turned-king Reza Shah, who banned the wearing of the veil in public in the 1930s.
During the Islamic Revolution, the women’s hijab became an important political symbol of the country “entering this new Islamic era”, Momeni said. Growing up in Tehran, she recalls “living between two worlds” where family and friends did not wear headscarves in private gatherings but feared being harassed or arrested by police or pro-government militias in public.
In 2008, Momeni was arrested and held in solitary confinement for a month in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, after working on a documentary about women activists and the 1 million signatures campaign which aimed to reform discriminatory laws. towards women. She was later released and joined the 2009 “Green Movement” protests.
Like Shams, she sees today’s wave of protests as shaking the foundations of the Islamic Republic.
“People are done with the hope of internal reform. People who don’t want hijab are a sign that they want the system to fundamentally change,” Momeni said.
The 2009 protests were led by Iran’s “reformist” movement, which called for a gradual opening up of Iranian society. But none of Iran’s political parties – even the most progressive and reformist-led ones – supported the abolition of the compulsory veil.
Shams, who grew up in a relatively religious family and sometimes wore the hijab, recounted how during the 2009 protests she publicly renounced the headscarf. She found herself attacked by pro-government media, but also shunned by figures in the reform movement – and by her then-husband’s family.
“The main reason for our divorce was the compulsory wearing of the hijab,” she said.
As Iran has been beleaguered by US sanctions and several waves of protests fueled by economic grievances, the rulers have become insular and intransigent.
In the 2021 presidential election, all serious candidates were disqualified to allow Ebrahim Raisi, a protege of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to take the presidency despite record turnout.
The death of Mahsa Amini, from a relatively poor Kurdish region, has galvanized anger against forms of ethnic and social – as well as gender – discrimination, Shams said.
From the universities of Tehran to the most remote Kurdish towns, men and women chanted: “Whoever kills our sister, we will kill him”.
Shams says Iran’s leaders have backed into a corner, where they fear giving in on the veil could endanger the 44-year-old Islamic Republic.
“There is no turning back, at this stage. If the Islamic Republic wants to stay in power, it must abolish the compulsory veil, but to do so, it must transform its political ideology,” she said. said “And the Islamic government is not ready for this change.”