Iranian Women Seek Greater Freedom Over Head Coverings

16 July, 2019

Walking in public has become a protest for a young Iranian woman who moves through Tehran's streets without her head covering, or hijab.

She is risking arrest. Iran's morality police are looking for women like her: women who refuse to follow the rules for women's appearance. Those rules were put in place after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"I have to confess it is really, really scary," the 30-year-old fire safety expert said in a WhatsApp audio message. She would not permit her name to be used because she is afraid of repercussions.

But she also is hopeful. She says she believes the police and other officials find it difficult to stop the protests as more women join.

"They are running after us, but cannot catch us," she said. "This is why we believe change is going to be made."

The hijab debate has angered some Iranians. It comes at a time when the country is suffering under strong sanctions placed on the country by the United States. President Donald Trump restarted the sanctions after the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers last year.

FILE - A veiled Iranian woman attends a rally after the Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran.
FILE - A veiled Iranian woman attends a rally after the Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran.

Now, the exchange value of Iranian money is collapsing, house prices are rising and unemployment is high. So how much can the government really do about the protesting women? And how far will the women go?

There is some evidence that more women are pushing back against the rules. They are trying to test the ruling Shiite Muslim government and their security agencies.

An Associated Press reporter saw about 24 women in the streets without a hijab over nine days. It was mainly in the richer parts of Tehran.

Many other women have decided to test the rules in a different way. They cover a bit of their hair with loose, colorful scarves.

Tehran's Grand Bazaar attracts traditional women, but even there many women wore a loose hijab. Still, a large number were covered completely in black and wore tight hijabs.

The struggle against wearing the hijab began in December 2017. That was when a woman climbed onto a box in Tehran's Revolution Street and waved her hijab on a stick. Since then more than 36 protestors like her have been detained. Nine are still in detention, said Masih Alinejad. She is an Iranian activist who now lives in New York.

While police try to silence protesters, public debate has only grown. It has been helped by social media.

Last month, a widely watched online video showed a security agent grab a young girl who was not wearing a hijab and violently push her into a police car. The incident was strongly criticized.

Others have called for punishments, even lashes. They argue that permitting women to show their hair leads to social problems and the collapse of families.

The judiciary recently asked Iranians to inform on women without hijabs. It asked them to send photos or video to government social media accounts.

"The more women dress in an openly sexual way, the less we'll have social peace," said Minoo Aslani last week. She is the leader of the women's part of the paramilitary Basij group.

Reformist lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshouri said that forcing people to obey does not work.

"What we see is that the morality police have been a failure," said Salahshouri. She wears the hijab because of her religious beliefs.

The laws are unlikely to be changed, she said, urging women to use non-violent civil disobedience.

It will be hard, she said, adding "Iranian women will not give up their efforts."

The hijab issue goes back to the mid-1930s when police forced women to take off their hijabs. This was part of a Westernization policy of Shah Reza Pahlavi who ruled at the time. Under his son and successor, women could choose. The wealthy dressed like Westerners.

Attitudes have changed. In 1980, about 66 percent believed women should wear hijabs. Today, fewer than 45 percent think the laws should be enforced, an Iranian research group said.

The activists in Iran take risks.

In March, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to more than 38 years in prison. She has represented women protestors. Her husband said she will serve about 12 years.

In April, activists Yasaman Aryani, her mother Monireh Arabshahi and Mojgan Keshavarz were arrested after posting a video showing themselves without headscarves in the Tehran metro.

Amnesty International said Monday that Iranian officials have used detentions, and threats against families to try to force activists to change their ideas. The "confessions" are videotaped. The group said it had seen six "confessions" since April.

I'm Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

hijab – n. a head covering worn by Muslim women which covers the hair

confess – v. to admit that you did something wrong or unlawful

repercussion – n. something, usually bad, that happens as a result of an action

sanctions – n. punishment, usually in the form of restricting trade, that are meant to force a country to obey international law

attitude – n. a way of thinking that affects a person's behavior

lash – n. to be struck with a whip