My Stealthy Freedom: The Hijab in Iran and in the West

| by Malhar Mali |

In 1979, after the Islamic Revolution of Iran, more than a hundred thousand woman took to the streets to protest the new compulsory veiling that was to be enforced under the new Khomeini regime. Mothers, nurses, and students — women from all walks of life — gathered to voice their displeasure at the new policy. The protest was marred by violence, however, after a group of devout men opposed the wants of the women and proceeded to stab some of its female participants after they refused to stand down.

Discussing the hijab today sparks strong opinions from those involved in related fields of activism. In the West, figures like Linda Sarsour and Dalia Mogahed have hit the airwaves to proclaim that it offers women dignity and that it privatizes their sexuality. Fashion magazines feature hijabi models with headlines synonymous with “empowered” or “stereotype destroyer!” Doubters rather say that the garment is inherently patriarchal — enforced sometimes through violent coercion and more often a shame culture. The hijab took a prominent role this year after Trump’s ascent led to a massive women’s march on Washington. There, it was celebrated by Shepherd Fairey’s popular illustration. Free women donned it as a symbol of resistance and solidarity.

But in Iran and countries around the world, activists have been fighting for the right to choose whether they wish to wear a veil or not. The Islamic Revolution changed many things in Iran but perhaps the most adversely affected were its women. Amidst this turmoil has emerged the White Wednesdays campaign —  a movement focused on allowing choice when it comes to the veil. At its helm is Masih Alinejad, a vociferous critic of the forced hijab policy in Iran. To learn more about how the Islamic Revolution affected women, compulsory hijab laws, and her activism, I spoke to Masih. The following is our conversation:

Malhar Mali: The Islamic Revolution obviously changed a lot of things in Iran but lets focus on how it specifically affected women. Can you lay out some of the laws and policies that were implemented — obviously compulsory veiling, but are there any others?

Masih Alinejad: There has been a plethora of setbacks for women since the revolution. Women spectators have been banned from attending sporting events with men in stadiums. Women have been banned from participating in certain sporting competitions such as body-building. Women are obliged to wear burkinis for international swimming competitions. In the case of divorce, not only do the existing divorce laws take a man’s side, but the custody of the child is also given to men. When it comes to the inheritance law, a third of the parents’ inheritance goes to a girl whereas a boy would typically receive two thirds.

Moreover, as far as their private lives are concerned, women are not allowed to attend mixed-gender parties even in their own houses. Women can be arrested if they are seen with a man other than their relative in the streets. The marriage age at the beginning of the revolution was reduced to 13 from 18.

Finally, amidst the rising proportion of women at universities (there are more female students at Iranian universities nowadays than men), the government has resorted to limiting women’s quota in certain programs.

masih-alinejad
Masih Alinejad

MM: I’ve seen a few videos of women in Iran taking part in the White Wednesdays campaign against voluntary veiling. They take pictures and videos of themselves and post on various social portals. What types of risk are they putting themselves under by doing this? Imprisonment, jail-time?

MA: In the Islamic Republic, where justice is highly politicized, it remains uncertain what becomes of women who are arrested for flouting the dress code. Certain women are bussed to the Detention Centres run by the Morality Police where they are made to sign a form declaring that they will not engage in such behaviour ever after and that if they do, they are ready to face consequences.

However, it has to be borne in mind that being a woman in Iran already exposes you to a series of dangers with the political system in place. Just to give you an idea, in 2014 alone, according to the Security Forces’ own statistics, 3.6 million women in Iran were either warned, fined or arrested for their dress.

MM: What about your own personal safety? Death threats, intimidation, what sort of challenges do you face for your activism? 

MA: The challenges that I have faced for my activism are numerous. I receive derogatory comments, insults, and guilt trips from the supporters of the regime on a daily basis. The media outlets close to the regime continue to portray me as a lusty woman. Recently, there were reports about me circulating in the government-sponsored media outlets calling me a “prostitute.” They have posted my photo on a billboard alongside that of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah of Iran, at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport at their hall of shame. When my campaign first started, the state media alleged that I was crazy and that I had been raped in front of my son at a metro station in London (the city where I used to live). To cut a long story short, I endure a daily barrage of insults and invectives because the campaign that I have launched actually touches the Achilles tendon of the regime. As my most recent campaign, “White Wednesdays” gained momentum, the attacks from the Iranian cyber-army intensified. They rendered our Telegram channel (a widely used messaging application in Iran) inoperable by inundating us with swearwords and insults to prevent Iranian women from sending us videos. Their aim was to break me and to demoralize me. However, no matter what they resort to, I will not surrender; I know that my campaign commands a considerable support inside Iran and compulsory veil is a discriminatory law.

MM: In the West, the hijab is portrayed by some as a symbol of empowerment and resistance for women. One of the iconic posters to come out of the Women’s March in Washington D.C. was of a woman wearing the hijab. Women participating in the march who were not Muslim even wore and celebrated the hijab. What are your thoughts on this and what would you say to them? I’m assuming you’re pro-choice — not anti hijab?

MA: Our campaign has never been against hijab and we personally do not have any problems with women wearing hijab. For example, my own mother wears the veil and I would support her right to dress the way that she wants. Hijab is neither a symbol of resistance, nor a symbol of oppression. However, “compulsory” hijab is a source of oppression. It is merely some people’s interpretation of religion. We sympathize wholeheartedly with veiled Muslim women in the US who have been subjected to violence and discrimination due to their choice of attire; we find such attacks to be hideous. This being said, despite the clarity of our message about the fact that we support freedom of choice when it comes to the way that women dress, our campaign has unfortunately not received media attention from many liberal-minded people. There seems to be an uncanny fear amongst liberals to lend us their support. Many of them are scared of being labelled as Islamophobic. In reality, there is nothing Islamophobic about asking for freedom of choice. This barrier of fear should be crossed and liberals should start to see us as their natural allies.

MM: Can you speak about the culture of shaming by family and friends for women who don’t wish to veil? Tying into this, I’m sure religious authorities and Imams are responsible for the pushback against My Stealthy Freedom. Do you see any positive changes coming? 

MA: Religious authorities in Iran have taken up the issue of the veil to incredibly ridiculous lengths. For instance, several Friday prayers leaders have attributed recent droughts in Iran to the fact that there has been an upsurge of badly-veiled women in the streets of the country.

As far as family is concerned, Iran is a country that has faced a swift demographic transition at the turn of the century. As women have grown increasingly educated (today, more than 60% of university graduates are female), many of them have started to question the conservative tenants of their upbringing, creating a generational clash. It is not unusual to come across very liberal-minded women hailing from conservative families. Many of these women have also started seeing compulsory veil as an insult to their intelligence, rather than simply taking it as a cultural trait.

MM: What can readers do to help My Stealthy Freedom and your campaign against forced veiling?

MA: The best way of lending us your support is relaying our message of peace and solidarity to everyone. Talking about our campaign and telling everyone around the world that the government in Iran has not been honest about the level of discontentment that women display against compulsory veil. Telling people that our campaign is a peaceful campaign and that we do not hate anyone.

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Malhar Mali writes about secularism, human rights, politics, and culture. He is the Editor at Areo. You can connect with him on Twitter @MalharMali or via email at malhar@areomagazine.com

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