Since 28 December 2017, there have been several protests and demonstrations in Iran. They began as opposition protests to the government’s economic policies which favor the richest parts of the population, while the low-middle class, although educated, struggles to make ends meet. Soon thereafter, the protests developed into politically charged protests against the theocratic regime. An indication that the protests were shifting in nature was the so-called Hijabi protests. Why are these protests so significant, what is their driving force and what do they aim to achieve in Iran?
Why the hijab?
Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree requiring all Iranian women to wear the hijab – a veil for ensuring that Muslim women present themselves in a modest way in public. This begat intense protests, but the law was not changed and Iranian women are required to be veiled to this day. However, since the law does not clearly define “hijab”, women in Iran use their creativity in fashion to create elegant and modern versions of the hijab. According to The Atlantic, the way a woman covers herself is a clue to her support or opposition to the regime; women who wear the tchador, a traditional Iranian veil covering most of the body, are perceived as being aligned with the principles of the theocracy, while women whose hijab barely covers their hair are perceived as embracing “revolutionary” attire.
How did the Hijabi protests originate?
The origin of the Hijabi protests is thought to be related to the White Wednesday movement, which was organized by exiled Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, creator of the My Stealthy Freedom project. Many Iranian women sent photographs of themselves in public spaces without wearing the hijab to support an ongoing campaign of My Stealthy Freedom. In May 2017, Alinejad proposed that women wear white clothing on Wednesday to signal their opposition to the mandatory hijab.
During the December 2017 protests, an Iranian woman named Vida Mohaved was detained by authorities after removing her white headscarf and waiving it on a pole. This image of her, captured by an anonymous photographer, spread across social media as “The Girl of Enghelab Street”. Although Mohaved has now been released, her arrest inflamed Iranian women. A few weeks later another Iranian woman was detained for the same reason.
On 30 January 2018, six women removed their headscarves and waived them on poles in public, standing on utility boxes in order to increase their visibility. An undoubtedly radical and defiant move by Iranian standards, it resulted in the arrest of at least one of the women.
A prominent Iranian activist and lawyer named Nasrin Sotoudeh is supporting the protesters and also representing Vida Movahedi. “My guess is that more of these protests will follow. It is obvious that some women want to decide for themselves what to wear”, said Sotoudeh.
What is the long-term objective?
The Hijabi protests are not solely a fashion statement, nor is clothing the main concern. In fact, the protesters view the mandatory hijab as a manifestation of the inequality between Iranian men and women in a society where the female population is vastly educated and integrated into the workforce.
The government surely recognizes the value and contributions of Iranian women to society, evident in symbolic gestures such as the softening the punishments for women who do not wear the headscarf in public. However, most women in Iran hardly think this is the solution. The majority believe equality can only be guaranteed when the government ceases to dictate what they can or cannot wear.
Further, it is important to note that Iranian women are not against the hijab per se, but rather against the requirement to wear it. As stated by Masih Alinejad, “We are fighting for freedom to choose to wear or not wear hijab. Our fight is against compulsion. Our fight is for freedom of choice.”
The Hijabi protests are protests for freedom, driven by both Iranian women who choose to cover themselves and Iranian women who do not. Once again, the women in Iran are testing the limits of the Iranian regime. While rooted in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Green Movement of 2009, this fight for freedom – the freedom for choice – is occurring in an age that is witnessing profound and rapid changes across governance, culture, traditions and more. Will this be the age in which the Hijabi protesters are able to finally claim their freedom?