Women, Life, Freedom: The Backlash against Compulsory Hijab in Iran

As State forces in Iran continue to violently suppress protestors, we invited Prof. Nacim Pak-Shiraz to offer context on the political battles being waged on women’s bodies.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has not shied away from using brutal force in enforcing hijab on its reluctant population since it came to power in 1979. Through pro-regime vigilantes and the so-called morality police, charged with ‘guarding’ the ‘decency’ of society and guiding it, they have used every means at their disposal to ensure women’s compliance.  In this way, they have normalised violence against women. Scores of women have been arrested and detained for wearing the hijab incorrectly, with some reporting cases of torture, and rape, while under arrest.

Large protest crowd of unveiled women chanting

Image: Women Marching against compulsory veiling, Tehran, March 1979

The Orwellian regime has arrogated to itself the agency over women’s bodies and lives. Women cannot choose whether they want to wear a hijab or not. They have lost their autonomy not only over their bodies but also their lives. They cannot obtain a passport, or travel outside the country without their husband’s legal permission.  They do not have the right to divorce or custody. They are not allowed to sing or dance in public. They do not have equal access to employment, with positions such as the judiciary being unavailable to women. If a woman is the victim of crime, legally, her life is worth half that of a man.

The regime’s incessant attempts at stifling Iranian women, however, have failed. Iranian women have been resisting compulsory hijab from the very early days of the Revolution. In March 1979, just one month after the Revolution, women protested in large numbers against enforced veiling. Iranian women are tired of having their bodies turned into sites of political battles. In 1936, women were forced to unveil to project a ‘modernised’ image of Iran that the monarch, Reza Shah Pahlavi, wanted to project to the world. Later, the Islamic Republic that replaced the Pahlavi state, enforced the veil on women. Since then, protests have emerged in different forms and shapes against compulsory hijab. For example, in 2017, individuals removed their headscarves in public spaces, and hung it on a stick as a sign of silent protest.

Person with long black hair standing on a box and holding a stick with a white scarf

Image: Vida Movahed, silent protest, Tehran, 2017

The detention and subsequent death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, on 16th September 2022 has sparked a new wave of protests in Iran that has quickly spread across the world. The morality police arrested Mahsa on 13th September, for not wearing her hijab properly. A couple of hours later, she went into a coma and died three days later giving rise to mass protests. Women have been at the forefront of these protests, opposing compulsory hijab by removing their headscarves and waving it in the air, burning them or cutting their hair. The conflation of Islam with women’s veiling and therefore referring to any resistance to compulsory veiling as Islamophobic is not only wrong but also distracts from the focus of the demands these women are making. They are not protesting against Islam; they are resisting the systematic oppression and exploitation of women in Iran under the Islamic Republic.

Person standing on a car bonnet holding up a stick with a lit hijab

Image: Woman burning hijab, Iran, September 2022

People dancing around a bonfire of hijabs

Image: Women dancing around a bonfire of their scarves, September 2022

Image: Protests against Mahsa Amini’s death, Iran, September 2022

Since Mahsa Amini’s murder, Iranians have not only braved the streets and faced live ammunition used by the police, they have also taken social media by storm, with Mahsa Amini’s hashtag in Persian alone exceeding 160 million instances on Twitter, to date. The tweets which started with Iranians expressing their rage against her killing quickly expanded to listing a litany of social ills they are facing as well as the alternative society they desire.

Shervin Hajipour, a young artist, turned some of these tweets into a song which he released on 27thSeptember. Within 48 hours this video had gained 40 million views on his Instagram page. This despite the shutdown of mobile internet by the authorities within a few days of the recent uprisings. Shervin was arrested on 29th September and his song deleted from his Instagram page on the same day. As the links to his songs might disappear, here is my translation of the lyrics of this powerful song:

Barayeh Song – Shervin Hajipour

Translation Nacim Pak-Shiraz

For wanting to dance in the streets

For the terror of kissing in the streets

For my sister, your sister, our sisters

For wanting to change the rotten minds

For the indignity of poverty

For yearning for just an ordinary life

For the child who doesn’t know the meaning of ‘a wish’

For this corrupt economy

For the polluted air we inhale

For the weary trees of Tehran’s streets

For the cheetah cub going extinct

For the innocent dogs, banned and shunned

For the incessant tears

For the lives stolen, the memories cut short

For wanting to finally wear a smile

For our children, for the future

For this imposed heaven

For the incarcerated talents,

For the Afghan children

For the multitude of reasons, each unique

For the shallow slogans we were forced to sing

For the ruins of the ramshackle you built

For wanting to feel at peace

For wanting sunlight after these long nights

For the antidepressants and the sleepless nights

For men, nation, prosperity

For all the girls who wished they were boys

For women, life, Freedom

For Freedom!

Here is Shervin Hajipour’s song.

Unveiled women faces a crowd of veiled women

Image: A protester facing the pro-regime vigilantes

A young girl with a backpack facing a group of uniformed men

Image: A single woman facing the police, Iran, September 2022

Professor Nacim Pak-Shiraz is Personal Chair of Cinema and Iran in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

(A note on images: All images were supplied by the author and sourced from social media where they were typically posted anonymously. If you feel you need credit for an image, please get in touch!)