The current uprising in Iran is a revolution led by women. It centres on the enforcement of hijab, but the protests are about much more than the wearing of a headscarf. Hijab has become synonymous with the oppressive regime and removing it has become a symbol of protest. Opposition to hijab is the protestors’ rallying cry.
Iranian women have been forced to wear hijab since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the battle between Iranian women and the regime dates back far earlier. For centuries, hijab has been not just a religious mandate, but a political tool.
Shia Islam became Iran’s official religion under the Safavids, whose hegemony began in 1501. The Safavids established a mutual agreement between the monarchy or ruling shah and the Shia clergy (the ulama), granting the Shia religious leaders land and money in exchange for their loyalty. The influence of the ulama grew further under the Qajar dynasty.
In 1925, Reza Khan overthrew the Qajar dynasty and declared himself the Pahlavi Shah of Iran. Following a 1936 visit to Turkey, during which he was impressed by Ataturk’s efforts to westernise that country, Reza Shah implemented a number of social reforms and, especially, boosted the status of women. In addition to introducing mass education and allowing women to take up paid employment, Reza Shah outlawed wearing the hijab in public. This marked the start of a schism between the monarchy and the clergy and sparked discontent among the many devout Iranians who held the ulama in high regard and disliked the Shah’s social innovations.
Reza Shah was succeeded by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, who launched a new series of reforms in what is known as the White Revolution, further challenging the authority of the ulama and granting women greater legal rights. Revolutionary cleric Ruhollah Khomeini voiced the resulting discontent among the religious authorities, portraying the reforms as an attack on Islam and accusing the Shah of pandering to the wishes of the United States and Israel.
It was not only clerics who felt threatened by the Shah’s reforms, however. Leftists like sociologist Ali Shariati were also highly influential in the movement that led to the 1979 Revolution. Shariati wanted to resurrect what he saw as Shia Islam’s revolutionary spirit. For him, Islam was a means of liberating the Third World from colonialism. Unlike Khomeini, Shariati did not want the government to be run by clerics. He argued that the clergy’s role should be a moral, not a political one: to steer society away from the individualistic hedonism he viewed as prevalent in the west. Khomeini’s vision of a theocratic government was in direct opposition to the more secular ideology of Islamic leftists like Shariati. Yet Khomeini encouraged these leftist groups to join his supporters in overthrowing the Shah by lying about his intentions—with the later justification that he was simply observing the principle of taqiyya (practising deception in the service of defending Islam).
Once the revolution had proved victorious, Khomeini was free to be more explicit about his goal of establishing an Islamic theocracy. During the revolution, Khomeini had promised to support women’s rights, but on assuming power, his promises proved hollow. He believed that the state needed to enforce female modesty and morality and on 7 March 1979, he made hijab mandatory for all women in the workplace.
On the following day, 8 March, International Women’s Day, women took to the streets en masse to protest compulsory hijab. Many left-wing women had worn hijab as a symbol of their opposition to the Shah during the revolution. They had never expected it to be made mandatory. “We didn’t have a revolution just to go backwards,” the protestors chanted. They were briefly victorious: the decree was initially retracted in response to the protests. But once the leftists and liberals had been defeated and the conservatives took full control of the Iranian state, hijab was imposed on all women.
Higher education in Iran had traditionally been dominated by leftist forces, opposed to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic state. But during the Iranian Cultural Revolution of 1980–83, the universities were purged of western and non-Islamic influences. Leftist guerrilla forces revolted against these impositions and were met with a ferocious crackdown by the Islamic Republic, whose secret police began eliminating potential political opponents through extrajudicial murders. Many members of the MEK—a militant leftist Islamic group—and of other leftist opposition groups were executed. Several high-ranking members of Iran’s current government, including incumbent president Ebrahim Raisi, were involved in carrying out these executions in one of the late twentieth-century’s most brutal episodes of state-sponsored terror. These events are largely unknown or forgotten outside Iran.
On 16 September 2022, protests began in Tehran in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in custody after she was arrested by the morality police for wearing her hijab “improperly.” The protestors—led mainly by women—soon outnumbered those of the previous protests of 2017 and 2019. And, unlike those protests, these are no longer primarily demands for the repeal of mandatory hijab or the reform of the morality police. Now the people want the complete downfall of the theocratic regime.
The protestors focus on hijab because it is the most tangible symbol of the regime’s authority: a constant reminder of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and of the regime’s powers of surveillance, control and repression. The regime bases its legitimacy on the pretence that Iranians want to live under Islamic law. If the people can demonstrate that they do not want to be governed by Islamic law, it will be obvious that there is no reason to uphold the Islamic Republic. For the protestors, the hijab, then, is a symbol of oppression and removing it is a visible act of defiance. Many of them are explicit about this, repeating: “Hijab is just an excuse. The regime itself is the target.”
The Islamic takeover of Iran’s government was motivated by a traditional religious ideology, an ideology bolstered by clerical control over women’s lives. This is why the latest protests against the regime have been led by women. Today’s Iranian women have seized the leadership of this national project: the liberation of Iran. In doing so, they are true to feminism’s original roots, which were about uplifting everyone and strengthening the whole of society by granting equality to people from every group. Women may be leading the current uprising, but their goal is freedom for all Iranians.
The Islamic Republic has a history of discriminating against a number of religious, ethnic and other groups. But since women are the largest oppressed group, to fight for their liberation has become a means of fighting against all the oppressions of the theocratic regime. The clerics have failed to achieve prosperity for Iran and are using their control over women’s bodies to try to hold onto the approval of their conservative base. They can’t improve living conditions in the country, so they enforce hijab and oppress women in order to seem to be accomplishing something, to be in control of some aspect of Iranian life. But this pretence is wearing thin.
Iran’s female-led uprising is neither left nor right-leaning. Representatives of the political groups that led the opposition against the Islamic Republic in the past have been noticeably absent from their leadership. The protest movement has captured the attention of the entire world, uniting people across political lines. The spectacle of innocent schoolgirls standing up to a violent and bloodthirsty regime has aroused the sympathies of people from across the political spectrum, both in Iran and abroad.
Although the uprising has been led by women, they have invited men to march shoulder to shoulder with them. The protestors initially chanted the Kurdish slogan Woman, Life, Freedom, but the women soon added the chant Man, Nation, Prosperity.
A fifth wave of feminism, then, has sparked the first female-led revolution in history. This women’s revolution, taking place in that part of the world where it is most needed, has already become a source of inspiration for female activists in the Middle East and elsewhere. Iran’s women have raised the bar of heroism as they risk their lives for their country and for their liberation.