Iran’s anti-veil protests draw on long history of resistance

A young woman climbs on top of a car in central Iran’s conservative city of Mashhad, known for its Islamic holy sites. She took off her hijab and began chanting: “Death to the dictator!” Nearby protesters joined in, and cars honked in support.

For many Iranian women, it was an image unimaginable a decade ago, said Fat Meshams, who grew up in Mashhad.

“When you see Mashhad women taking to the streets to publicly burn their veils, it’s really a revolutionary change. Iranian women are ending the veil society and the mandatory veil,” she said.

Iran has seen multiple protests over the past few years, many sparked by anger over economic hardship. But the new wave is showing anger at the core issue of Iranian cleric-led national identity: the mandatory veil.

The Islamic Republic of Iran requires women to cover up in public, including wearing a “hijab” or headscarf to completely cover their hair. Many Iranian women, especially in big cities, have long played a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, with the younger generation pushing the boundaries of conservative dress by wearing loose-fitting scarves and clothing.

That game could have ended in tragedy. A 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested by morality police in the capital Tehran and died in custody. Her death sparked widespread unrest for nearly two weeks This has spread to Iranian provinces, bringing students, middle-class professionals and working-class men and women to the streets.

Iranian state television said at least 41 protesters and police were killed. At least 13 people were killed and more than 1,400 demonstrators were arrested, according to an Associated Press tally of official statements from the authorities.

A young woman in Tehran said she had been participating in protests in the capital over the past week, saying the violent response by security forces had largely reduced the size of the demonstrations.

“People were still taking to the streets looking for a metre of space to yell, but they were immediately violently chased, beaten and detained, so they tried to mobilise in groups of four or five, and once they saw they had a chance to run together and start show,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The most important protest they (Iranian women) do now is take off their scarves and burn them,” she added. “This is a women’s movement first and foremost, with men in the back row supporting them.”

Shams, a writer and rights activist since her days as a student at the University of Tehran, took part in massive anti-government protests in 2009 before fleeing Iran.

But this time is different, she said.

Shams, who now lives in the United States, said the wave of violent crackdowns on protests over the past 13 years had “disillusioned traditional social classes that were once the backbone of the Islamic Republic.”

She said the fact that protests took place in conservative cities like Mashhad or Qom — historic centers of Iranian clerics — was unprecedented.

“Every morning I wake up thinking, did this really happen? Women make fires with veils?”

Modern Iranian history is full of unexpected twists and turns.

Iranian women who grew up before the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979 remember a country where women were largely free to choose how they dressed.

People of all stripes, from the left to the religious hardliners, participated in the revolution that overthrew the king. But in the end, it was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers who eventually seized power and established an Islamic state led by a Shiite cleric.

On March 7, 1979, Khomeini announced that all women must wear the hijab. Just the next day – International Women’s Day – tens of thousands of unclothed women marched in protest.

“This was really the first counter-revolutionary movement,” said Susan Maybude, who participated in those marches while working as a press assistant for foreign media. “It’s not just about the hijab, because we know what’s going to happen next, disenfranchising women,” she recalls, when she didn’t even have a hijab.

“What you see today is not something that just happened. In Iran, there is a long history of women protesting and defying authority.

The hijab has always been “a lightning rod for the opposition,” explains Roham Alvandi, an Iranian historian and associate professor at the London School of Economics.

“It represents the Islamic Republic’s ability to penetrate and control the most intimate and private aspects of Iranian life,” he said.

A century or more ago, the strict veil was largely confined to Iran’s upper classes. Most women work in rural areas, “so hijabs are out of the question for them,” said Esha Momeni, an Iranian activist and scholar in the Department of Gender Studies at UCLA.

Many women wear “roosari” or casual headscarves, which are “part of traditional clothing and not of very religious significance”.

Throughout the late 19th century, women were front and center in street protests, she said. During Iran’s first democratic uprising in 1905, local women’s rights committees were established in many towns.

A period of top-down secularization followed, with the military-turned-king King Rezasha outlawing 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’s “entry into this new Islamic era,” Momeni said. Growing up in Tehran, she remembers “living between two worlds”, with family and friends not wearing a veil at private gatherings but fearful of being harassed or arrested by police or pro-government militias in public.

In 2008, Momeni was arrested and spent a month in solitary confinement at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison after he made a documentary about female activists and a campaign of 1 million signatures aimed at reforming laws that discriminate against women. She was later released and participated in the “Green Movement” protests in 2009.

Like Shams, she believes today’s wave of protests has shaken the foundations of the Islamic Republic.

“People have finished their hopes of internal reform. People who don’t want hijabs show 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 of Iranian society. But Iran’s political parties — even the most progressive, reformist-led ones — do not support the removal of the mandatory veil.

Shams, who grew up in a relatively religious household and sometimes wears a hijab, recounts how she publicly gave up wearing it during the 2009 protests. 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 we got divorced was the mandatory hijab,” she said.

With Iran under constant siege from U.S. sanctions and several waves of protests over economic grievances, the leadership has become isolated and uncompromising.

In the 2021 presidential election, despite record low voter turnout, all serious contenders are disqualified, leaving Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s protégé Ebrahim Raisi as president job title.

Shams said the death of Mahsa Amini, from the relatively impoverished Kurdish region, sparked outrage over forms of racial and social – and gender – discrimination.

From universities in Tehran to far-flung Kurdish towns, protesters, male and female, chanted: “Whoever kills our sister, we’ll kill them.”

Shams said Iran’s rulers had cornered themselves, fearing that concessions on the veil could jeopardize the 44-year-old Islamic republic.

“At this point, there is no turning back. If the Islamic Republic wants to stay in power, they must abolish the mandatory hijab, but in order to do so, they must transform their political ideology,” she said. “And the Islamic government is not ready for this change.”

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