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Analysis. Women are taking off their headscarves in public and going to jail for it. “In this way their protest comes to stand for other injustices that women have been suffering for years, and against which they have been fighting for years.”

The silent revolution against the mandatory veil

They are risking two months in prison and a €20 fine.

That is the penalty for women who dare to let their hair loose in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the veil has been compulsory in public since 1980.

In the years following the Revolution of 1979, the dress code was strict. In universities, the maghnaeh was the norm. It resembles a nun’s headdress, sewn together to allow space for the head without having to knot it at the neck, and thus without the risk of it slipping off. The maghnaeh was customary also in public offices, where there were public employees waiting with makeup remover to clean off makeup that was deemed too heavy. The chador was the required outfit for the lower classes, and it was mandatory for all in the mausoleums on pilgrimage routes: Masumeh in the holy city of Qum, and the tomb of Imam Reza in Mashhad.

The veil has always been a bone of contention in Iran, shown by the fact that in 1936, the Shah of Persia had forbidden it, causing problems for many ladies who were not accustomed to show themselves to outsiders without it.

By banning the veil, Shah Reza avoided dealing with the more important problems. Men continued to have various privileges such as the ability to marry four women, to divorce a woman at will, and to inherit a larger share of the parents’ estate than their sisters.

Shah Reza was forced into exile by the British in 1941. With the rule of his son, Shah Mohammad Reza, the ban on the veil was rescinded, and everyone went back to dressing the way they wanted: the middle class bareheaded, and the vast majority wearing the veil in its different forms.

Then, the veil became mandatory after the 1979 Revolution.

In the four decades since then, the headscarf has become increasingly narrow, showing an ever-growing portion of the hair.

But the obligation of covering the hair, at least in part, with a piece of cloth is still in force. Light, or even transparent—it doesn’t matter much. The fact remains that the veil is still required. For some women it is something that they would freely choose, while for others it is not.

With a touch of female solidarity, Iranian women are now protesting the obligation to wear the hijab—including the women who would wear it of their own choice.

This has become, itself, an Iranian women’s revolution. A silent one, without any violence.

Some choose to wear the white veil, to stand out from the many who, fully on board with tradition, choose black. Some take it off entirely, let others photograph them, and then get arrested.

This happened on Dec. 27 to Vida Movahed. A 31-year-old mother of a 19-month-old child, she took her veil off in public the day before the protests in Enghelab street, or “Revolution street,” in Tehran. She was arrested the next day. This Sunday, she was finally released, according to a Facebook post by her lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, a known human rights activist.

“Her release was attributed to international pressure, but it was actually internal pressure that worried the Iranian authorities, after a parliamentary delegation was able to visit the Evin prison, where they hold political prisoners, a few days ago,” says Anna Vanzan, an expert on Iran and a professor at the State University of Milan. “Women in Iran now represent a social force that, with a silent but everyday protest, is breaking up the allegedly monolithic nature of a system that, slowly but surely, is imploding.”

Her release set off a domino effect. On Monday morning, another girl took off her veil and climbed on top of a block of concrete, in full view of everyone. She was photographed for 10 minutes, until plainclothes police officers arrived to arrest her.

Her name is Nargues Hosseini. On her wrist she wore a green bracelet, a sign that the Iranians still remember the opposition Green Movement of 2009, and its leaders, who have been under house arrest since Feb. 14, 2011.

Where she did it is also significant: on the same Enghelab, or “Revolution,” street. And Tuesday, three other women did the same.

Their photos are circulating on the social networks. They are in the capital, Tehran, and there is snow on the ground; one has dark hair, long and wavy; another has short hair, dyed green. And there have been others who have taken off the veil as well, some in the capital, others in Isfahan, Shiraz and in the smaller towns.

What they are doing is a form of rebellion. Not necessarily against the veil itself, but against the obligation to wear the veil, which should be a matter of free choice.

Vanzan said it is certainly true that “eliminating the veil requirement is not a high priority for Iranian women, but in this way their protest comes to stand for other injustices that women have been suffering for years, and against which they have been fighting for years—for example, reforming the family code, which contains articles discriminating against women in the regulation of key institutions, such as, to name only the most important, marriage, divorce and custody of minor children, and the inheritance quotas, which mean that in Iran, daughters receive only half of what sons receive.”

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