Much of the recent protests in Iran against the theocratic regime that governs the country concern the obligation imposed on women to wear the Islamic veil, or hijab. The protests began after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died on September 16 in Tehran after being arrested by religious police for not wearing the veil correctly, and who according to protesters was beaten to death in prison. These days, among the requests of those who protest is to loosen the strict moral rules that require women to wear the veil, as well as to dissolve the religious police, who are responsible for enforcing them.
For this reason, women are playing a central role in the protest, and for days there have been videos of Iranians burning their veils and cutting their hair in public places, exceptional events in a country where dissent is systematically repressed by the regime. These anti-veil demonstrations are certainly not the first in Iran: the Islamic veil has been at the center of political discussion in the country for almost a century, albeit for very different reasons.
Before the Islamic Revolution
The Islamic veil became a topic of great discussion and political divisions in Iran in 1936, when the country was in a very different situation from today: it was not ruled by a theocracy, as it is now, but by the secular regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi, who took power after the First World War.
Following the model of other authoritarian leaders of the time, such as the Turk Kemal Atatürk, the shah imposed a forced modernization and westernization of Iran. In 1936, after a long period in which wearing the veil had been discouraged, the shah issued a decree called the Kashf-e hijab, which translates as “unveiling” and definitively banned women from wearing the hijab and other Islamic veils in public.
The Shah also ordered men to abandon traditional clothes and dress in the Western style, with jacket, trousers and bowler hat.
In those years the vast majority of Iranian women wore the veil, and the shah’s imposition was seen as an abuse, also because the government ordered the police to enforce the “disclosure” by harsh means: the women who wore the hijabs in public were often beaten up and their headscarves ripped off. There were major protests, and in the more conservative communities it could happen that women avoided leaving the house, so as not to have to do it with their heads uncovered.
In 1941, the shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who abrogated the Kashf-e hijab and allowed women to dress as they wished, with or without a veil. But the veil remained one of the symbols of the political struggle, also because the shah continued to lead and promote a secular and western lifestyle, and his government, in fact, practiced active discrimination against the women who wore it, for example. in public office, from which women wearing the veil were excluded. Meanwhile, the Shah’s popularity continued to decline, mainly due to allegations of corruption against his regime.
The removal of the veil became the symbol not only of the forced Westernization campaign carried out by the Shah, but also of his authoritarian regime. Wearing it, on the other hand, became a symbol of the opposition: not only women belonging to the more conservative classes, but also those of the middle class, educated and wealthy, began to do so as a sign of protest.
In 1979 the Islamic revolution forced the shah to flee the country. In his place, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a well-known Shiite religious leader, installed himself as Supreme Leader (the main Iranian political and religious authority). Khomeini and his initially presented the revolution as an Islamist, but also as an anti-Western and, all in all, as a leftist movement, seeking to put an end to the authoritarian regime and the abuses of the Shah. Also for this reason, at least initially, Khomeini was rather appreciated in the West, especially in Europe.
In fact, in a very short time Khomeini and the revolutionaries imposed a rigid theocracy in Iran, ousting non-religious people who had also contributed to the revolution (such as the communists) from their positions of power.
Shortly after taking power, Khomeini completely overturned the laws of the first shah and required all women to wear the veil. Many of the non-religious and middle-class women who had supported the revolution rebelled and protested by the tens of thousands on March 8, 1979, in a great march that remained famous.
The regime, which had just installed itself, momentarily withdrew the imposition of the veil. But within a few years the most conservative Islamic revolutionaries consolidated their power, eliminating all moderates from government and public office, and were strong enough to return to imposing their own moral laws on Iranians. In 1980, women without a veil were banned from entering public offices, and in 1981 wearing the veil became mandatory again. A law passed two years later also established corporal punishment for women who left the house without a veil: 74 lashes.
Within a few years, in Iran, the veil went from being a symbol of liberation from the shah’s regime to a symbol of oppression of the ayatollahs’ regime.
The most recent protests
The protests against the veil, however, have never completely subsided, and over the years the movements against the Iranian regime’s moral impositions have become more and more numerous.
Iranian legislation still provides for the possibility that a woman who leaves the house without a veil will be punished with lashes, but this is now a rather rare punishment, even if it is sometimes practiced. Normally, Iranian legislation provides for a fine (between 50,000 and 500,000 rials, i.e. between 1.5 and 15 euros) or a prison sentence that can last between 10 days and two months.
But the religious police, which have the task of enforcing these types of laws, have enormous discretion on how to behave and there have been cases of exceptional abuses, such as arrested women who are imposed exorbitant bail to be paid to get out of prison.
It also happens that the religious police target women who use the hijab, which can show part of the hair and neck, to push them to wear the black chador, which is the preferred cover of the religious leadership because it leaves only the face uncovered. . In other cases, women belonging to religious minorities are particularly targeted for covering their heads in non-standard clothing.
– Read also: What do we mean when we talk about “veil”
For this reason, in the face of cases such as the one that led to the death of Mahsa Amini, it is quite common for very strong protests to develop.
The demonstrations against the hijab in recent years have been numerous: the best known took place between 2017 and 2018, inspired by the photo of a girl who, in via Revolution (one of the great streets of Tehran), took off her hijab white, placed it on top of a stick and waved it like a flag in protest. That gesture was one of the most significant of the protests for democracy of that period, which were later repressed with violence.
The so-called Girls of Revolution Street protest began on December 27th, and with it started Iran’s most robust debate about both women’s rights and religious restrictions in the four decades since the fall of the Shah: https://t.co/4lfGdnqtI9 pic.twitter.com/f8SzVDwYC0
– The New Yorker (@NewYorker) February 8, 2018