The Hijab Protest: "Revolutionary Moments" in Women’s Struggle for Change in Iran
Dr. Liora Hendelman-Baavur*
ACIS Iran Pulse No. 112 | November 7, 2022
The death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini on September 16, following her arrest by morality police for wearing the hijab (Islamic veil) improperly, ignited a wave of popular protests throughout Iran that has continued for almost two months now. On the one hand, these vast protests reflect a growing dissatisfaction with the Islamic Republic’s failed policies for addressing the economic and social hardships that afflict a significant portion of the country’s approximately 85 million citizens. On the other hand, the demonstrators adopted the tripartite “Woman, Life, Freedom” (Zan, Zandegi, Azadi) as the main slogan of the protest, which represents “revolutionary moments” in the history of the continuous, persistent struggle of women in Iran for change.
Hijab – the head covering that women in Iran are required to wear in public, in addition to loose, modest clothing – has been at the heart of the struggles over national identity, religious authority and the regime’s political power for decades now. The politicization of the hijab is not new; indeed, its roots can be traced back to the mid-1930s, when the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, promoted a campaign forcing women to remove their hijabs in the public sphere. His effort did not last more than a few years, but became entrenched in the popular collective memory, and a focal point in the struggle over Iran’s national identity. In 1979, with the overthrow of the monarchy, veiling became the flag of the revolution that culminated with the establishment of an Islamic theocracy. At that time, women who had renounced the hijab were viewed as the embodiment of the secularism and imperialist influences of Western cultures promoted by the Shah’s regime, while women who cloaked themselves in the Chador (a black cape customary in Iran) were identified with the Islamic nationalism of the new post-revolutionary era. Over the years, forcing women in Iran to wear a hijab – including non-Muslim Iranians and those visiting the country – became a sort of a litmus test, testifying to the regime’s level of control over the entire population. A survey conducted by an Iranian-based strategic studies center in 2005 found that nearly 34% of the participants were against the government “dictating” women’s clothing. This figure reached 49% in 2013 (RadioFarda).
Despite profound progresses occurring in Iran in the decades since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and especially after the end of the war with Iraq (1988), the critical role of women in the local economy and the importance of their position in the family, society and the political system came to the fore against a backdrop of wider changes. A combination of factors contributed to this development, among them the growing inclusion of women in the labor market, a steep increase in women’s education, changes in family structure and other key social values. Simultaneously with the broader inclusion of women in the public sphere, their more autonomous political behavior has been accompanied by growing feminist awareness. Regardless of these changes, Iran often performs poorly on international inequality indexes such as the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report issued by the World Economic Forum, in which the Islamic Republic ranked 150 out of the 156 countries rated. Discrimination against women is evident in marriage laws (the legal age of marriage for girls is 13 but 15 for boys), divorce, custody of children and other areas. Even when various governments made an effort to address gender discrimination and social problems, the influence of more conservative factions among the senior religious leaders lead to an ambiguous social policy with a choreography best characterized as two steps forward, one-step back.
One indication of how the regime’s progress is moderated by partial regression in its policies on the status of women in the family and society is the noticeable increase in the proportion of women candidates in parliamentary elections, from 90 in the first Majles (1980-1984) to 1,234 in the 10th Majles (2016-2020). Although the number of women in the Majles has risen, from four to 17, (but then dropped to 16, after one of them died of Corona), it remains low at only 5.9% of Iran’s 290 parliament members. A restrictive interpretation of the constitution also precludes women from competing in the presidential elections, despite an ongoing public debate on the issue, and a glass ceiling continues to block their inclusion in the decision-making leadership. The ability of women to influence profound changes in gender policy from within the political system has therefore remained quite limited.
The sphere that has witnessed the most dramatic changes concern the state's population control policies. In November 2021, the Majles approved a program for increasing the national fertility rate, with the aim of accelerating natural population growth in the country through an array of incentives, such as benefits for pregnant women on the one hand and imposing restrictions on birth control methods, limiting sterilization, criminalization of abortion, etc. on the other. Increasing the rate of natural population growth was included in the 2021-2026 development plan and launched with Ayatollah Khamenei’s robust support, reversing the previous policy approved by his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini before his demise in 1989. By the late 1990s, state authorities reported a remarkable decline of the annual birth rate, which fell from 6.3 children per woman in 1986 to 2.2 in 2000. This dramatic 64% plunge in the birth rate made Iran’s success in family planning a model that inspired imitation by other countries. In time, as the young population began to dwindle while the retirement-age population increased steadily, grave concerns about the dire consequences of the growing imbalance between the number of working-age adults (15-64), and the younger and older age groups, which are dependent on the first group’s production capacity and income, emerged. Demographic concerns might partly explain the modification in the regime’s policy, but Iranian women are those most affected by the shift. Plans to increase the national fertility rate often involve initiatives to reduce women’s paid work hours, and result in higher rate of polygamy and an increase in child marriages.
In contrast to Iran’s about-face in its population control policy, initiatives designed to alleviate social distress not infrequently encounter administrative and parliamentary procrastination, are blocked by the Guardian Council, or withdrawn after a new, more conservative government replaces its predecessor in office. A salient example is the authorities’ indifference towards sexual assaults and domestic violence. A 2004 survey conducted in 28 districts found that 66% of married women reported being victimized by domestic violence at least once after marriage, 30% suffered from severe violence, and 10% suffered temporary or permanent damage. The grim picture emerging from this survey not only portrays the regime’s gender policy in an unflattering light, but also testifies to its failure to maintain social morality and the personal security of its female citizens. These findings did not, however, prevent Ayatollah Khamenei from suggesting on his official Twitter account in October 2018 – on the first anniversary of the founding of the #Metoo movement – that the solution to the never-ending blight of sexual abuse and harassment of Western women lay in Islam and the hijab.
A law for the protection, dignity, and safety of women from violence was approved in January 2020, after being delayed for nearly a decade, but still awaits approval by Iran’s Guardian Council. Legislative initiatives against emotional and physical abuse of children and teenagers have also been delayed for many years. Iran signed the 1994 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Majles passed a law against employment and exploitation of children in 2002, but these provided no protection for victims of domestic violence. The Guardian Council approved the law for protection of children and teenagers only in June 2020, following the murder of Romina Ashrafi, a 14 year-old girl whose father decapitated her after she tried to run away from home with her alleged boyfriend. This affair aroused public criticism when it became known that the maximum punishment that the legal system could impose on the father was a mere 10-year sentence.
Iranian leaders emphasize the notion that women’s status is at its best under Islam, but Iran’s record as a leading violator of human and civil rights shows a completely different picture of ongoing oppression and gender discrimination. The authorities systematically prevent both the progress of the institutionalized women’s movement and the emergence of local women’s leadership on the grassroots level. In the summer of 2006, women social activists in Iran initiated a nationwide campaign to collect a million signatures in support of repealing laws that discriminate against women. From the very beginning, however, the organizers of the initiative were subjected to pressure, harassment, prosecution and even imprisonment in some cases. Statements over the years by conservative factions and state officials indicate that they attribute women’s struggles to Western infiltration and considers them an effort to weaken the regime and subvert the values of the Iranian revolution that its loyal supporters are committed to defending.
The suppression of social activism, which escalated following the riots that broke out following the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, had a number of dire consequences for women’s campaign to change gender-related policy in Iran. It enhanced the essential role and voice of feminist activity outside Iran, especially among the new community of Iranian exiles, many of whom fled the country during the past two decades. The most prominent of these campaigns are “My Stealthy Freedom” (2014), and “White Wednesdays” (2017) promoted by the expatriate journalist Masih Alinejad on social media. Another consequence is the division of the struggle into narrow, limited issues ranging from “Stop Stoning Forever,” founded in 2006 by journalist Asieh Amini and lawyer Shadi Sadr, to gender desegregation, most notably the ban on women entering national and international sports events held in Iran. These consequences have greatly impaired the ability to promote an organized and effective women’s movement in Iran.
In recent years, pressure exerted by international sports associations, among them the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, to open stadiums has been a focal point for major political and public controversy. The result has been an unclear policy alternating between limited permission and a general ban. In 2014, women were permitted to attend competitions in certain sports, such as volleyball, but still barred from attending men’s soccer games. A survey conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) in 2017 confirmed public support for a change in policy by showing that 61.2% of Iranians supported the presence of women in stadiums. In October 2018, a limited group of women was allowed to attend a soccer game between the Iranian and Bolivian national teams. Reformist media praised this measure as an important step in women’s liberation. Radical clerics, however, opposed it on the grounds of morals and the rules of modesty. They stressed that women attending stadiums and viewing half-naked men constituted a sin with no religious justification. With the renewal of the restrictions on the entry of women into stadiums, the efforts to sneak into forbidden sports events were also renewed. In September 2019, 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari (known as Iran’s “blue girl”) set herself alight and burned to death after a court in Tehran told her that she would be sentenced to a six-month prison term for impersonating a man to enter a game of the Esteghlal Football Club. This tragic affair resulted in international pressure by sports organizations on the government in Tehran. These events, however, did not prevent the election of Iran as a member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a functional commission of the UN Economic and Social Council, 2019-2021.
In conclusion, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, its commitment to advancing the status of women has been characterized by populist statements by its leaders regarding support for gender equality founded on the principles of “spirituality”, “justice” and “security,” and by a volatile policy based on delaying reforms or retreating from previous achievements. More than a coherent, orderly plan designed to reduce the gender gap, the policy ostensibly designed to improve the status of women actually served the interests of the regime. First, it contributed to the regime’s efforts to equate a seemingly “democratic appeal” to the local political system based on two central camps, reform seekers on the one hand and conservatives supporting the status quo on the other. Second, it helped the regime neutralize social activists, thwarting the growth of a local women’s movement in particular and local civil society in general. Third, it allowed the regime to present small gestures of reform as important achievements in response to international pressures on human and civil rights. The regime’s gender policy, therefore, has contributed its part to the Islamic Republic’s stability for more than four decades, but it is evident that the pace of changes permitted by the regime is inconsistent with the changes that have occurred in Iranian society, and with level of women’s expectations at the beginning of the 21st century’s third decade. The gap between the regime’s limited willingness to loosen its positions on gender issues or human and civil rights, and the demographic, social and cultural transformations is at the heart of women’s presence at the center of the current protest movement.
* Dr. Liora Hendelman-Baavur is director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of Creating the Modern Iranian Woman: Popular Culture between Two Revolutions by Cambridge University Press, 2019, winner of the Latifeh Yarshater Award of the Association for Iranian studies, 2022.
ACIS Iran-Pulse Guest Editor: Dr. Raz Zimmt.
T h e A l l i a n c e C e n t e r f o r I r a n i a n S t u d i e s ( A C I S )
Tel Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 61390, Tel Aviv P.O.B. 39040, Israel
Email: Irancen@tauex.tau.ac.il; Phone: +972-3-640-9510
F a x : + 9 7 2 - 3 - 6 4 0 - 6 6 6 5
ACIS Iran Pulse No. 112 ● November 7, 2022
©All rights reserved