OCTOBER 15 2022
The writer is an author and film-maker born in Iran.
When I was a 13-year-old in Tehran in 2001, I campaigned for the right to remove our headscarves at school. I argued with my principal that since it was an all-girls institution, why must we hide our hair? I even took in an article about how essential Vitamin D was for my age group. The principal caved. They mounted a thick curtain at the entrance, and from then on we took off our hair coverings upon arrival. But she was an exception. The issue of hijab has less to do with its religious connotations, and more to do with control. It has been weaponised ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Now, 20 years after my small victory, viral videos capture young Iranian girls burning their headscarves, swearing at photos of the supreme leader and chanting death to the dictator . . . on school premises. Even with the threat of expulsion or arrest. This generation, seemingly, is no longer afraid. Recently, young girls have been able to do more with fewer repercussions, compared to the early days after the revolution. But these small signs of progress sometimes give the illusion of freedom. At core, the state’s political ideology never caught up with society’s demands. The morality police is one manifestation of this lag: a draconian, omniscient organisation whose job is to make you feel like you’ve never left school. This is the organisation who arrested Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish girl visiting Tehran, whose death in detention sparked this entire movement. From the beginning of the Islamic revolution, hijab was one of the “pillars” of the new regime. For totalitarian systems, a congruent visual identity sends a powerful message: everyone thinks the same. If uniforms are an authoritarian fantasy, then the freedom to choose how you present yourself is a direct challenge. Mandatory hijab has gone through many iterations in Iranian history. In 1936 Reza Shah Pahlavi, inspired by Turkey’s Ataturk, issued a decree for all women to take off their hijab in a forceful and controversial attempt at modernisation. More than 40 years later, Ayatollah Khomeini introduced mandatory hijab as a way of painting a brand new aesthetic for the new Islamic republic. Once again, women were not part of that decision. Over the past 43 years Iranian women have continued to push the boundaries of what they are meant to look like. About 60 per cent of Iran’s university graduates are women; they are active in the workforce, tour the world in sports competitions, they go to raves and sunbathe on their rooftops, are in underground bands and work in medicine — they are online, informed, contemporary and unafraid of being seen. Of course, this is not all women — there are conservatives who campaign for mandatory hijab, and principals who would never have agreed with the younger me. But increasingly, those demanding change are willing to take major risks in voicing their discontent. Even during the 1979 revolution Iranian women protested Khomeini’s hijab decree — they chanted “we didn’t have a revolution, to go back in time”. Since then, they’ve been repeatedly told that there are “more pertinent” causes to fight for, and the matter of hijab will come later. There are certainly plenty of other archaic laws: abortion is a crime, divorce and custody laws are all in favour of men, women can’t be judges or leave the country without their husband or father’s permission. And yet, we are now witnessing the largest anti-government protests in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, crossing class and ethnic lines. Men have followed their sisters, wives, or mothers to the street. Dissent is seeping through society in different ways: an old lady buying bread without her hijab, university students not showing up to class, shops closing down, hashtags trending on Twitter, the state TV getting hacked for a few seconds, graffiti artists tagging towns with names of those who have been killed. And although different slogans are created everyday, “Woman, life, freedom” remains the beating heart of the movement. This is not the first mass protest in Iran. In 1999, there were widespread student demonstrations under then president Mohammad Khatami. In 2009, the Green Movement broke out as the public pushed back against alleged rigged elections. The 2017 and 2019 riots focused mostly around a post-sanctioned, ailing economy. Now, the chants are directed at the supreme leader and the regime itself. Even Iran’s state TV offered a (relatively two-sided) debate on the concept of morality police. Some officials voiced that perhaps hijab can be a personal choice, while others favour continued crackdowns. But Iranians, and Iranian women, have been fighting this fight for a long time. And it’s not yet over.