As mass protests against the government are insurging all over Iran, the relationship between the hijab and the state of women is re-entering the public debate. In our Westernized view of the world, we may be used to thinking about the veil as a symbol of oppression for Iranian women, but is that really the case? History suggests otherwise.
In Iran, two events have sparked mass protests in at least 80 cities: Mahsa Amini was arrested on the 16th of September by the religious morality police because her headscarf was not worn in accordance with hijab law and then died in the hospital a few hours later. Even though the police claim she died of a heart attack, eyewitnesses assert she was killed by police brutality. Five days later, Hadis Najafi was shot dead by government-backed security forces while she was protesting for the death of Mahsa Amini.1 After her death, a video of herself as she tied her ponytail and joined the protest became viral on the internet.
Iranian women have reacted to these tragic events by taking the streets, appearing on social media unveiled, and publicly cutting a lock of their hair to manifest their resistance against hijab law.2 In short, hijab law in Iran requires women to always wear the hijab in public and face criminal punishments in case of disobedience. One could thus come to believe wearing the hijab signifies subordination in a deeply patriarchal society and that freedom of women can be achieved only through the liberation from the veil.
However, what this article tries to argue by tracing salient events in the history of the country is that this idea is a common misconception, typical of Westernized beliefs. On the contrary, the veil has not always been a symbol of oppression but rather has also taken the political value of resistance.
According to scholar Hamideh Sedgh, the veil used to be a symbol of social status under the Persian Empire since it was mandatory only for the upper class. In contrast, women in rural and working communities were not obliged to wear it. Indeed, veils constituted an element of traditional customs amongst different tribal communities, worn in different forms and colors3.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the growing influence of Great Britain in Iran brought to the ascent of Reza Shah Pahlavi. He came to power by overthrowing the Qajar dynasty with the support of British armed forces and declared himself king of Iran. His rule brought a period of reform aimed at modernizing the country, including elevating women’s conditions. In 1936, Reza Shah ordered the removal of women’s veils and coerced women to wear Western style instead of traditional clothing, provoking mass outrage in religious conservative groups.
These reforms aimed at promoting a modern, western-style Iran and pushed forward in national public opinion the idea that veiled women represented the backward past of the country. 4
Even though the claim of the Shah was to uplift women, unveiling was instituted coercively. Canadian Iranian socio-anthropologist Hooma Hodfar argues that this policy was introduced in an authoritarian and patriarchal framework and weaponized for the Shah’s political gain.5
For instance, veiled women were banned from workplaces and prevented from receiving services in restaurants, hotels, and other businesses6. Therefore, self-determination of women – in this case the choice of wearing the veil or not, which could be based on their identity and religious belief – lacked. Collective organization of feminist movements were also forbidden under Reza Shah’s rule.
Nonetheless, during the ‘70s, the Islamic cultural movement took root in the country, opposing the Shah, who was in turn accused of indulging Western political economic interests. The rise of this cultural movement overturned the image of veiled women.
Sociologist at the Center for Middle East Studies Ashraf Zahedi, in her paper titled “Meaning of the Veil and Political Ideologies of Iranian Regimes”, articulated how the meaning of the veil changed in the second half of the 20th century.
In juxtaposition to the figure of the Westernized woman, the movement grounded in the values of Islamic tradition and rejecting the meddling of Western powers with Iranian politics and economics, produced the archetype of the “culturally authentic Muslim woman.” The key message was that to fight oppression from the regime women had to break away from Western fashion and lifestyle.
Hence, female students increasingly took up the Islamic attire and the veil, which in previous decades had been confined to rural and backwards contexts, became a symbol of resistance to the Shah and of self-determination for women.
In 1979, the Shah Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown and an Islamic Republic, governed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was instated. On March 7th, 1979, unveiling was banned. Once again, freedom of choice for Iranian women’s bodies was denied, and the following day, which coincidentally happened to be International Women’s Day, thousands of women took the streets in protest in Teheran and Qom, Ayatollah Koheimini’s city of residence.7
Since then, Iranian women have pursued individual and collective acts of political dissent to the regime’s control on women’s bodies and identities. Crucially, the source of oppression that they assert is not linked to the veil itself, but to the imposition, coercion, and consequences of unveiling.
During the “pink revolution” of the 1990s, women began pushing the boundaries of hijab laws by wearing makeup and increasingly revealing hair.8 In 2006, the grass-root movement “Change for Equality” collected signatures to repeal the discriminatory laws against women and this group played a significant role in the 2009 protests against the claimed rigged election of President Ahmadinejad.9
In the streets, women protested with loose headscarves, wearing jeans and makeup and their pictures became viral on the internet. During the demonstrations, university student Neda Agha Soltan was killed by government militias. Her death became viral because it was filmed on a cellphone, proving to citizens and to the international community how government security forces violently repressed the uprising10.
These days, Iranian women are once again taking the streets, and analysts believe national political support has never been this widespread. 11 There is common resentment towards president Ebrahim Raisi’s government, which culminated in the strong crackdown of these past few weeks but also has deep economic roots, the mismanagement of the pandemic and widespread corruption being key factors. 12
Veiling and unveiling has and will continue to take up new political meanings as women continue to fight for their own identity and freedom. What we see emerging from current events in Iran is that women acting against the regime have become the new icons of resistance.