Maryam Shariatmadari, one of the ‘Girls of Revolution Street’, was arrested for protesting the mandatory hijab practice of Iran, and sentenced to one year in prison on March 25. Charged under Branch 1091 of the 2nd Penal Court of Tehran for “encouraging corruption by removing her hijab”, Shariatmadari is the second woman to be sentenced for participating in the anti-hijab protests that have gained momentum across the country since late last year.
On March 7, 2018, Narges Hosseini, was booked under similar charges and sentenced to 2 years in prison. While criticising both the sentences, prominent human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh told the Center for Human Rights in Iran, “In order to create fear, the judiciary is exaggerating alleged crimes and trying to impose heavier punishments; that’s against the law.”
It all started in May 2014, when Masih Alinejad, an exiled Iranian journalist in New York, posted old pictures of herself, clicked in Iran, where she had taken off her mandatory veil while driving. Soon, her Facebook page was flooded with similar pictures shared by Iranian women. Alinejad then created a Facebook page, “My Stealthy Freedom”, encouraging women of her country to do the same. A campaign, #WhiteWednesdays, bloomed, asking women to wear white on Wednesdays to protest the compulsion.
The campaign reached a crescendo on December 27, 2017, when Vida Movahedi, a 31-year-old mother of a toddler, stood in Tehran’s busy Enghelab Square and waved her headscarf like a flag, as part of #WhiteWednesdays. Movahedi was arrested, and released after nearly a month. She has not been seen since. “Yes, we have no news of Vida… Everyone is wondering about her whereabouts,” Alinejad told The Indian Express through Facebook. However, many women, who call themselves the ‘Girls of Revolution Street’, followed suit. Since January, the Iranian police have arrested at least 29 people, including men, for making silent demands for equality on Enghelab (or revolution) Street.
Like in most Muslim-majority nations, the hijab in Iran, too, plays an important role in understanding the dynamics between the power elite and the society. During the Pahlavi regime (1925-1979), Mohammad Reza Shah (the last Shah), with the intention of modernising Iran, had issued a decree banning all Islamic veils. This not only clashed with the religious values of the majority, but its forceful implementation also outraged locals.
In a research paper titled ‘Women and the Moral Politics of Dress in Twentieth Century Tehran’, Rhoya Sousan Sarikhani Selden writes, “Many Iranians… opposed the Pahlavis’ close relationship with Western countries and their material extravagance. Mullahs (clerics) based in Iran’s religious capital of Qom denounced the Pahlavi monarchy, as they believed that it betrayed Iran’s true ideals.”
The resistance snowballed into the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which was led by Ayatollah Khomeini, an Iranian cleric and opponent of the Shah. Khomeini was exiled, and returned to the country in 1979; soon after the Islamic Republic of Iran was born. As Selden observes in her research that even during this time, “The women of Iran… felt the full brunt of the clash between opposing nationalisms.”
Following the revolution, the new government under Khomeini introduced its own set of strict domestic laws, mainly for women. While acknowledging the crucial role women played in the revolution, the Khomeini dispensation passed an edict making hijab compulsory for all women in Iran.
On March 8, 1979, thousands of women again took to the streets to reassert their ability to choose for themselves. However, “they [protestors] were attacked by vigilantes with acid, scissors, knives and stones…,” Azar Nafisi, an Iranian writer, was quoted as saying in an article published in HuffPost.
According to the Islamic Penal Code of Iran (1991), “women who appear in public without a proper hijab should be imprisoned from ten days to two months or pay a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 Ryal”. This allowed the “morality police” to harass women for any violation of the country’s dress code.
The current scenario
The anti-hijab protests that were visible in late 2017 have compelled Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to react to the issue. An article published by Iran’s Radio Farda quoted the leader as saying that the protests were “the outcome of the enemy’s widespread propaganda, and spending hefty sums in order to influence Iranian women’s attitude towards hijab.”
The hijab, the leader claims, “makes women immune to sexual harassment and gender inequality.”
Meanwhile, Alinejad said, “the compulsory veil had always been a thorny issue… Women have always resisted it by pushing the boundaries further, by wearing shorter and more colourful coats, and headscarves….”
Commenting on the recent measures introduced in Saudi Arabia, she said, “Iranians have been… watching fondly the developments in Saudi Arabia. For a long time, reformists… had been telling the world that Iran was better than Saudi Arabia in terms of women’s place in society because women can at least drive… However, with the… reforms in Saudi Arabia, the pressure to open up is also mounting on the Iranian regime….”
On the ongoing campaigns, Alinejad said, “It has given greater courage to Iranian women, so much so that we have even been receiving videos/photos of women walking unveiled near the morality police… Moreover, it has also created solidarity worldwide… Turkish women, for instance, have been… supporting Iranian women’s White Wednesdays through what they call #BeyazÇarsambalar campaign.”