In Hijab Protests, Iranians Reveal Their Oppressive Rulers

An officially sanctioned fatal beating of a woman for incorrectly wearing the hijab unleashes a long-bottled-up rage against a regressive and fearful government

In Hijab Protests, Iranians Reveal Their Oppressive Rulers
Demonstrators taking to the streets of the capital Tehran on Sept. 21 during a protest for Mahsa Amini, days after she died in police custody (AFP via Getty Images)

On Sept. 16, Tehran awoke in a state of awe, having followed for 48 hours the incident of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd who was detained and beaten to death by the so-called mor(t)ality police for wearing the compulsory hijab “improperly.” She was neither the first nor will she be the last young woman to die in Iran under state custody. But her murder, coming after major waves of bloody nationwide protests in the past five years, the shooting down of Ukraine Flight 752 and the execution of the wrestler Navid Afkari, felt like deja vu for Iranians.

Bewilderment quickly turned into rage, fueled by 43 years of the Islamist regime’s accumulated contempt for the wishes of Iran’s majority. Men and women, many unveiled, have taken to the streets of cities across the four corners of the country, including Tehran and Amini’s native province of Kurdistan, burning their hijabs to protest not only the Islamic Republic’s compulsory veiling policy but also a misogynistic gender apartheid regime that has largely excluded women from public life. Now it was the authorities’ turn to look dazed and amazed at how people’s indignation appears to be far greater than their own power.

The intersection of gender and ethnic discrimination plays a significant role here. Despite their active participation in the 1979 Revolution, women were the very first group to be barred from post-revolutionary Iran’s public sphere. And Kurds have been among the country’s most harshly repressed, yet resilient, ethnic groups. With Iranian Kurdistan’s long tradition of resistance, Amini’s funeral transformed into a demonstration, and exiled Kurdish parties have called for an all-out general strike across the province.

This intersection is epitomized by the now ubiquitous slogan that originated in Kurdistan and rapidly spread across the country: “Woman, life, freedom.” Derived from the idea that the oppression of women was the root of all other forms of oppression, it points to the convergence of ideological, economic and political injustices inflicted upon Iranians over the past four decades.

Iranian women have resisted their subjugation since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. As early as the first month after the revolution, women poured into the streets to protest Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s policy of enforced veiling, which required Iranian women to cover all parts of their bodies, with the exception of the face and hands, in public, regardless of religion and ethnicity.

In a speech just ahead of International Women’s Day, Khomeini referred to unveiled women as “naked” and announced that those who wanted to go to work must wear hijab. A famous slogan by his supporters made it clear how his decree would be implemented: “Ya roosari, ya toosari” (“Cover your head or be smacked in the head”).

Khomeini also repealed the Family Protection Act, introduced in 1975, which had abolished extrajudicial divorce, limited polygyny (when a man has more than one wife) and granted child custody to women. The Islamic Republic not only made it compulsory for all women across the country to wear the hijab but also curbed their social freedom. Women could not travel, work or go to college without their husband’s permission. They could not serve as judges, and their testimony carried half the value of men’s testimony. The “cultural revolution,” which involved the Islamization of all universities and a mass purge of professors, also meant the exclusion of women from some fields of study.

The social backlash, however, was immense. The unveiled women who had fought against the shah’s despotism side by side with their veiled fellow revolutionaries (as well as men) felt sidelined but didn’t back off. On March 8, 1979, they marched down Tehran’s iconic Enghelab (Revolution) Street to rage against the growing assaults on women’s rights. The protests continued for a week — at the University of Tehran and in front of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Iranian Radio and Television office.

Kate Millett, the American feminist writer who had been invited to Iran in 1979 for the International Women’s Day celebration by a group of Iranian activists, gave a full account of the six days of women’s protests.

“We are not fighting only for chador, for more than that,” an Iranian woman participating in the protests told Millett. “They will start with the chador and in a few months they will say women are not allowed to go out of the house, to have jobs at all. We will not wait for that. We will fight it. Because this is my country, I love it, I just want to stay here, I don’t want to go anywhere else. I was born here, I will die here.” Millett was flabbergasted. “At home or anywhere in the West I’ve never heard feminists speak of dying for their cause,” she wrote.

In 1994, a prominent Iranian academic and political activist, Homa Darabi, immolated herself in a public square in Tehran to protest the plight of women in her country. Millett was not there to witness this Iranian feminist dying for the cause, and social media was not there to record this fatal political performance. Darabi had been dismissed from her position at the University of Tehran for not following the rules for wearing a hijab, and on Feb. 21, she removed her veil, doused herself in petrol and set herself on fire. She died of severe burns a day later in a Tehran hospital.

In 2017, nearly 40 years into the revolution, a young woman stood on a utility box on Enghelab Street, tied her white headscarf to a stick and waved it as a flag. She became the symbol of a movement called “The Girls of Enghelab Street” — the same street where women had trodden during the early days of the Revolution in defiance of their subjugation to sharia.

Public space has thus become a battlefield for ordinary Iranian women who have faced constant state harassment simply for being women. The Islamic Republic of Iran, of which the Taliban government that rules in neighboring Afghanistan is merely a more primitive form, has not, and will not, budge on the hijab issue, which it considers one of its founding pillars. The authorities know well that any retreat on this front would be a death blow to their very existence.

This is why the current nationwide protests must be understood as going beyond just the compulsory hijab. Their scope extends to the totality of the Islamic Republic. This regime, which came into existence disciplining women’s bodies and regulating their appearance, now faces its demise in the form of women challenging its ideological edifice.

The specter of its collapse is foreshadowed in the faces of its most loyal lackeys and spin doctors, who have gone mute on social media. Even those who have been silent about the regime’s atrocities until recently, including celebrities who have whitewashed the Islamic Republic, now appear like rats fleeing a sinking ship. History is unfolding before us.

Four-plus decades of discrimination, subjugation and repression have led to this uprising of the excluded, from women and students to workers and the urban poor. The women of Iran both crystallize this exclusion and inspire the widespread resistance against it.

The death of Amini has galvanized Iranians in a way that has never been seen before. The epitaph on her headstone, written in Kurdish, indicates history in making: “You’re immortal. Your name will morph into a symbol.” May it be a symbol of the liberation of Iranian women and the liberation of the nation, which are inextricably linked.

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