In the end of December last year, Iranians took to the streets and started demonstrating against increasing prices and rising unemployment rates. As 2018 began, the protests turned into general demonstrations against the regime, which is led by President Hassan Rouhani and the Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many Iranians are craving social and economic change, and in the midst of these demands, we also find women’s demand for freedom. Iranian women have for a long time used effective, peaceful means of protest to draw attention to their cause, and at the demonstrations on December 27th 2017, Vida Movahed stood up on a utility box in public, took off her hijab and waved it in the air on a stick – to protest the laws that require women to cover their heads in public. Following her lead, other women joined in – dozens were arrested.
Writing this in the very liberal Norway, I have been following the situation from a distance: wanting to read up on what’s going on and why, I have eagerly read articles written by or featuring Iranian women – many of whom are now settled in other countries. (After all, no one is better than the Iranian women themselves at evaluating the situation.) While reading, one thing has become very clear: the protests are about more than just the hijab, they are about human rights and about women’s rights.
The current wave of protests may be traced back to 2014 and the activist Masih Alinejad’s “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign, which once and for all put the campaign for freedom in the international media spotlight, as it made social media a powerful tool for Iranian women. As thousands joined Alinejad in posting pictures of themselves in public places without their hijabs on, Alinejab summed up the situation perfectly: «We are not fighting against a piece of cloth. We are fighting for our dignity. If you can’t choose what to put on your head, they won’t let you be in charge of what is in your head either.»
«We are not fighting against a piece of cloth. We are fighting for our dignity. If you can’t choose what to put on your head, they won’t let you be in charge of what is in your head either.»
In a country that has seen political situations ranging from allowing mini-skirts and banning hijabs - to the complete opposite - in just a few decades, Iranian women know all too well that wearing a hijab or not, is not the main issue at stake. The previous ban on hijabs a few decades ago lead to suppression of women’s freedom as well – the freedom to wear what you want to feel comfortable in your daily life. Both an order to wear something and a ban from wearing it is really about the same thing: the right to control what you do with your own body, without fearing any consequences for it.
Gaining control of your own body is not a new challenge for women, neither in the Middle East nor in the West; because it’s not just about clothes, it’s about being seen as an full human being, about being your own person. Although it might not be obvious at first, this is just as much a Western problem as it is a Middle Eastern one: we may not have to wear a hijab over here, but connecting the (misogynistic) dots, you don’t have to look further than to democratic states in our neighbouring areas to find states that still prevent women from controlling their own bodies by forbidding them from having abortions or restricting their access to birth control. On a social level, women are also to a large extent still blamed for rape and sexual assault (mainly committed by men), based on what they were wearing or what society thinks of them, based on their looks and assumed sexual history. This still happens in modern societies – like our bodies aren’t ours in all circumstances, like we don’t own them fully – if it goes against the desires of the men and culture around us or has the slightest smidge of potential of life that doesn’t even exist yet (that’s another debate).
The hijab laws in Iran is just a small part of a widespread discrimination of women on many levels, and a fear of what will happen if women gain autonomy of their own bodies and sexuality. The hijab may just be a piece of cloth, but as a symbol, it is so much more: the right to decide what to wear and to have the power to decide what to do with your own body; something that has been denied women all over the world for centuries. If this right is achieved on a general basis, it would drastically change gender roles, and not just in Iran. Clothing and covering up or undressing the female body is closely tied to the view of women as inferior, as objects subject to the male gaze at all times, and having to dress accordingly, to please or prevent desires. The hijab protests are therefore not just an issue of «what to wear» for Iranian women, it is part of a cultural change that may have serious implications, also for the Iranian regime as a whole.
Although the US withdrawing from the nuclear deal has overshadowed most other news about Iran in the media lately, the demonstrations for the freedom to choose whether to wear a hijab or not are still going strong, and spreading rapidly due to social media. According to the BBC, Masih Alinejad (now living in the USA), currently has more than 2.5 million followers on her social media accounts, and has become a force for the Iranian government to reckon with. One example is an incident that took place in the end of April this year, where a woman was grabbed and slapped by a female morality police officer in Tehran – due to a loose headscarf. The incident was filmed, and after it reached Alinejad’s Instagram account, it was seen by more than 3 million people and commented on by more than 30 000!
At the Doyennes, we’re cheering on the Iranian women in their fight for freedom, and will continue following the developments on both social and traditional media. Looking to get some more insight into the situation from a closer point of view, we had a little chat with an Iranian-Norwegian woman, who is a trustworthy source, but prefers to remain anonymous:
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your opinion on the hijab-law and protests against it?
I moved to Norway when I was little. Obviously, I have been back a few times, and every time I go back, I have to cover up. It’s not that big of a deal to me because I know it’s temporary, but I do think about my fellow sisters when I’m there; they have to wear a hijab all year round – imagine what it must be like to cover up in 50 degrees Celsius! Last time I was in Iran, I did see a lot of changes when it comes to how women dress, how they cover up and how they behave towards the use of hijab. It is obvious that the Persians are pushing limits and boundaries when it comes to this issue, and I was absolutely expecting an outburst like the one we now have seen, during the protests.
I don’t think the protests are just about the hijab; it’s about women’s rights and the submissiveness that has been forced upon them. It’s about the lack of opportunities and it’s about being forced to wear something that you cannot identify with. I mean, I have met, spoken to and spent a lot of time with girls and women in Iran, and the majority of them are just like us [women in the West]: they have the same hobbies, they chase after guys, listen to music, dance and want to express themselves and their personalities with fashion and make-up. The hijab doesn’t let them express themselves in the way they want – and I think it’s only a matter of time before new protests will take place. The strong, independent, Persian women will not find peace or be at ease until they have the power to decide whether they want to wear a hijab or not!
Why is the hijab so important to the regime? As mentioned, you do not think it is purely for religious reasons. Do you see it in context of wider human rights/ women’s rights issues?
There are many examples of religious, Muslim countries where the hijab is not a part of the law, so I don’t think it’s purely for religious reasons. There are many ways to cover up, so I absolutely do see it in context of wider human rights issues, and maybe even as a way of controlling people and making a statement of a clear difference between the power of the government and the power of the people.
In your opinion, does the campaign against the hijab law have broad support in Iran, also from men?
Absolutely! My opinion and my impression is that women are much less oppressed in the Persian homes and households than they are by the government. It’s not as common anymore that younger women wear their hijabs at gatherings where both/all sexes are present. Of course, there are some men and families who are strict due to their upbringings and family traditions, culture and religion, and are pro a strict hijab law, but the younger generations are much more liberal and much more supportive of women and their right to dress the way they want – hijab or no hijab. Some men even fight side by side with their sisters, cousins, girlfriends and friends.
Illustrations by the brilliant @zxaproject - thank you so much for the collab!