Women in Iran have said #No2Hijab and #WalkingUnveiled, risking fines and even jail time for violating strict regulations on women’s dress introduced after the country’s 1979 revolution.
“Iranian society never really understood the role that religion was going to play,” says Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Pennsylvania, of the pre- and post- revolutionaries in the country. . “I think a lot of other mainstream Islamic societies are still struggling with this.”
What was once a social media campaign has morphed into a full-fledged civil disobedience movement, gaining momentum and fueling a protest last month on National Hijab and Chastity Day. Across Iran, women have bared their heads, some freely posting images and videos and others anonymizing their faces with emoji and blurring to avoid prosecution. Weeks later, the protest reportedly resulted in several arrests.
Recent years in particular have seen an explosion of resistance against compulsory hijab, rooted in the 2014 creation of an online campaign called My Stealthy Freedom that collected photographs of undisclosed Iranian women and continued with the Girls of Revolution Street protests in 2018, as well as criticism of the country’s morality police – the main enforcers of the hijab law.
Eight years ago, 49% of respondents in Iran said the choice to wear the hijab should be a “private matter”, according to a report published by the Iran Center for Strategic Studies, a research arm of the office of the Iranian President at the time, Hassan Rouhani. . Survey results released in 2020 showed that 72% of Iranians – the majority of whom live in the country – opposed mandatory coverage.
But what has inspired the surge of opposition in recent years? US News recently spoke with Elnaz Sarbar, an activist and frequent contributor to My Stealthy Freedom and other women’s rights organizations, about the status of the movement against compulsory hijab and its progress over the past decade. Sarbar grew up in Iran but has since immigrated to the United States
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In this self-portrait, Iranian activist Elnaz Sarbar shows her support for the movement against Iran’s mandatory hijab laws.Elnaz Sarbar
Those who haven’t been to Iran may not understand the pressure of wearing the hijab. Could you tell us a bit about that?
I was born after the revolution, so I grew up with it. You are forced to wear the hijab when you are young. So basically, when you go to school, you have to wear a scarf, and if you don’t wear a scarf, you’re not allowed to go to school. So you can’t study. You cannot work. You can’t even appear in public. If a woman appears in public without having one, she can receive fines, lashes – up to 74 lashes – or be imprisoned.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not a Muslim – if you’re a Christian. It doesn’t matter if you are a foreigner traveling to Iran. You have wear it in public.
There has been discontent with compulsory hijab in Iran for decades, but how did the current movement start?
The women gradually pushed back: “OK, I’m going to have a smaller scarf. I’m going to make her show more hair. I’m going to make it tighter, shorter, more colorful, with the buttons open in front. Women backed off in this regard. But in my mind, change happened when Masih Alinejad launched a campaign called My Stealthy Freedom in 2014 and encouraged women to post photos and videos of themselves walking around without headscarves.
At first, many people said that the hijab was not a big deal. Even Iranian feminists thought we had other more important things to discuss. For example, as a woman, you do not have the (same) right to divorce. And your testimony is half a man’s testimony.
But this is not a minor problem. We’re getting to the point where people really understand it. Personally, I think it’s very important because you’re a kid and you’ve been told to put this on your head. For me, I was given this message that my opinion doesn’t matter, that I don’t have control over my body. How can I control anything else? How can I question anything else in society?
This therefore creates self-censorship – a lack of self-confidence among women to ask questions and foster transparency and accountability. This is a very important issue in the Islamic Republic because there is a lot of corruption and no accountability.
Is there a sense that public opinion could change significantly?
As part of Masih’s campaigns, we see videos of men who wear headscarves with their wives or sisters who don’t, taking a picture together and saying, “We support women having a choice. There are women with chadors (long headscarves that leave the face visible but cover most of the body) who want to keep the hijab themselves but accept that other women have the choice not to wear it.
So definitely, the support has increased a lot in recent years. People are bolder. I spoke with a girl who told me she had been walking without a headscarf for two years. It is now part of his daily life.
It is the result of 10 years of efforts in this direction. It didn’t happen overnight. And we still have a long way to go because we need more support from men in particular and from the outside world.
What can those beyond Iran’s borders who want to support the cause do?
So one challenge we face is that outside of Iran, people recognize the Islamic Republic as the official government, and that empowers them. For the Taliban, for ISIS, people know how bad they are. For the Islamic Republic, the image they conveyed is much better. But in reality, it’s the same philosophy. They just do it with smiley faces and better English.
Compulsory hijab is not just a local issue at this point. I have spoken with women in Denmark and Canada who have been forced by their families and communities to put on their headscarves.
We would like people to be aware of our struggle and not just say it is our culture. This is a criticism that must be addressed to Western feminists – especially women in politics – who go to Iran and wear the headscarf out of respect. And for us, it’s heartbreaking because Iranians put their lives at risk when they take to the streets and engage in social disobedience.
I think feminists outside of Iran also have a lot of experience, so collaborating with them could help us, and their support means a lot to us.