Saeed Ghasseminejad & Siavash Safavi
Last updated: 6 November, 2012

“Iranian women, even religious ones, were never happy with the mandatory hijab”

On October 11, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, gave a speech in the city of Bojnoord, in which there was a certain change of tone towards the issue of hijab (mandatory Islamic women’s clothing):

“Some of these ladies who came to welcome us today… were ladies whom are called Bad-hijab (with inappropriate hijab). She is also crying to see us. What should we do? Should we refuse her? Is it morally right to do so? Is it righteous? No! Her heart belongs to our front, she is devoted to our ideals and beliefs. She has a flaw. Don’t I have flaws as well? Hers is in the surface, mine is inside, they can’t see it…we have flaws, she has flaws. Treat it as such…treat them kindly, don’t create hatred. Connect with the youth.”

It might be a mere coincidence that less than two months ago, the city of Bojnoord witnessed wall writings saying: “No to mandatory hijab” in various parts of the city. The issue of hijab was brought to surface once again in the last few month by the Facebook campaign “No to mandatory hijab” which was started by “Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates” (ILSG) with the slogan “Unveil women’s right to unveil”. It is asking Iranian citizens, and public figures, to take a stand by sending their photos and support the campaign opposing this obvious violation of women’s rights. In less than two months, nearly 30.000 people joined the campaign’s Facebook page and thousands of photos were sent, more than 70% by Iranians inside Iran who oppose the compulsory hijab.

The issue dates back to the revolution of 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of the revolution, had taken very liberal stands during his exile in Paris. But a month after the revolution, he criticized the transitional government for allowing women to work without hijab in the ministries. The demonstrations of women against mandatory hijab were crushed by brute force of militia with the chilling slogan of “either scarf or head bash”. A few month later, in the so-called referendum for electing the Islamic Republic as the next regime, the policy of gender separation in public buildings started by separating the voting ques.

Soon after, Ayatollah Khomeini showed his support of gender separation in a fiery speech in which he threatened those wishing to sin, saying that “Islam won’t allow them to swim naked in the sea and walk in inappropriate clothing in the cities” promising that  “people will punish them”. The following year, with Islamist radicals in power, the pressure to enforce hijab reached a peak and Ayatollah Khomeini issued an ultimatum to the government to Islamize the public buildings and not allow women without hijab to get inside. Women who didn’t abide by this were prosecuted publicly and weren’t allowed to demonstrate against this rule, which did not become official law until three years later.

Over the past 30 years, hijab has been the most visual case of women’s rights violation in Iran. Iranian women, even religious ones, were never happy with the mandatory hijab. According to Islam, women must cover all their hair and not wear anything that draws a man’s attention to it but many Iranian women wore their scarves as an accessory and never completely covered their hair. Therefore the regime began its jihad against what’s known as bad-hijab. At first the Basij, a militia, attacked and beat women in the streets; then it became official and the police force was tasked with the fight.

Over these years, women became more radical through their outfits and continued to push the boundaries of the Islamic regime. Tighter outfits and scarves that barely covered their hair, it came to a point that the government of Mahmood Ahmadinejad who had promised not to bother the youth in the streets for their clothing, started a new task force called “Social and Moral Safety.” This special force is now stationed in many streets and patrolling the rest and there have been many reports and videos even on YouTube displaying the brutality of this task force during the apprehension of young “bad-hijab” girls. Radan, the chief of Iranian police reported of over a million oral “warnings” issued and many arrests in the first year of this so-called operation. And yet women are still refusing to do as told by the regime.

The “Campaign against mandatory hijab” was able to unite nearly 30.000 people from different political views and affiliations around one goal: “women’s rights”. People varying from religious figures like Mohsen Kadivar and Ayatollah Abdolhamid Tehrani to famous artists such as Sattar, Shahyar Ghanbari and Shahin Najafi, a famous rapper whom some Ayatollahs issued a death Fatwa on this year for one of his controversial songs; from older generations of political activists to young student activists, from far left and communists to liberals. By choosing a tangible, pragmatic and specific goal that the youth can relate to in their everyday life, this campaign was able to involve thousands of the non-political youth and receive over 2.000 photos in support, mostly from inside the country, which is extraordinary considering the constant threat of prosecution by the regime. For the first time since the Islamic revolution the majority of Iranians are united around one issue, no to mandatory hijab, and this is the most important achievement of the campaign.

The next move is to send a letter signed by members of the campaign to Ahmad Shahid, the special Rapporteur of United Nations on human rights violations in Iran, to consider mandatory hijab as a firm case of human rights violation.

The success of this campaign gives hope for the organization of women’s rights movement in the Middle East. Using this model, female rights activists in the Middle East can form similar campaigns and use them to connect to activists from other countries. If only 5.000 people join such campaigns in every country, it would create a force of 100.000 strong persons in 20 countries. A force that can start blowing the winds of change throughout the region. Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates are ready to share their own experience with women rights activists in Middle East and join forces with them to achieve a forceful movement for women’s rights in the region.