Hijab's Shadow on Iran: How Men Have Long Robbed Women of Their Right To Choose

You know about the ongoing hijab protests in Iran, but do you know the disturbing history of women's rights in Iran?

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8 min read
Edited By :Ahamad Fuwad

Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia

Voice Over: Zijah Sherwani

(This article was originally published on 19 November 2022. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives after Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi was awarded 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for her fight against the oppression of women.)

"I remember I would have dreams that I was out of the house without a hijab and it would stress me out," Sussan Tahmasebi, a women's rights activist who left Iran in 2010, recalls her last days in her home country, Iran.

"Wearing your hijab properly comes out of real fear. What happens if you lose your headscarf, a wind blows it away? They are not unusual fears that Iranian women have and I had them as well," she adds.

Tahmasebi's recollection draws a contrast with the change Iran has undergone after the Islamic revolution of 1979.

"I had grown up in Iran as a child where hijab wasn't mandatory," she recalls.

Popular media often depict the juxtaposition of Iranian women before and after the Islamic revolution of 1979.

These contrasts, of women in modern clothes before 1979 and of women in compulsory veil after 1979, give an inaccurate impression that women enjoyed full freedom before the Islamic revolution, which transformed Iran into a theocracy.

'Modernisation' of Iran

After taking over Iran's reigns in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi aimed to westernise the 2500-year-old Persian kingdom on similar lines to what its next-door neighbour Turkey was doing under Mustafa Kemal Pasha.

One of the most prominent, and equally controversial, decrees under Shah's efforts to "modernise" Iran was passed in 1936. Called Kashf-e hijab, the decree banned women from wearing Islamic veils. 

"Women were forced to take off their hijab and this was seen as a sign of progress by Reza Shah," says Tahmasebi.

Tahmasebi's grandmother was one of those women who suffered the "unjustified ban" on hijab under Reza Shah. The ban robbed the women of their right to choose. Women who chose to wear the hijab in public were humiliated, with police publicly removing it off their head.

In a society where covering of head was considered obligatory for women, they found a way to do so despite the ban.

"I asked my father what did she [grandmother] do and he said she would wear a hat. And we have this saying that if somebody puts a hat on you that means they have cheated you. So I really think that it really goes to show. A lot of women, instead of wearing normal hijab, they would wear a hat to observe whatever their religious beliefs were. But in a sense, it shows how women were cheated."
Sussan Tahmasebi, Iranian Women's Rights Advocate, to The Quint

Enforcing western clothing in a conservative society like Iran did not go down well and clothing became an issue which would drive the Iranian politics for the times to come. 

"Their bodies, their dress, the control of their bodies became sort of a political tool where politicians expressed themselves in their policies. So there has been a battle on this, I think, ever since," says Tahmasebi.
You know about the ongoing hijab protests in Iran, but do you know the disturbing history of women's rights in Iran?

To enforce Reza Shah's ban on hijab, police were ordered to remove veils from any women who wore them in public.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


1941-1979: Iranian Women Finally Attain Some Rights, But...

After the Soviets and the British invaded Iran during the Second World War, Reza Khan abdicated his throne and flew the country.

Reza Shah's son and successor, Mohammed Reza Pehlavi, lifted the ban on hijab but continued to push for the modernisation of the Iranian State and society.

"There was personal freedom in those times. You could go out wearing any clothes you wanted," says Nasrin Parvaz, an author-activist and a torture survivor who had to flee the country in the mid 1980s, recalling her younger days in Iran.

"When I turned nine, my mom started dressing me in chador (a form of Ismalic veil) as per her religious beliefs. But I hated it. After a few days, I stopped wearing it and nobody forced it upon me."
Nasrin Parvaz, Author, Activist, and Torture Survivor, to The Quint
You know about the ongoing hijab protests in Iran, but do you know the disturbing history of women's rights in Iran?

Shah's attempt to westernise Iran through a series of reforms called the White Revolution brought some benefits to the Iranian women. Women in Iran got the right to vote in 1963, which was remarkable as even western countries like Switzerland permitted voting rights to women years later.

(Photo: Ettela'at newspaper / Wikimedia Commons)

The modernisation efforts by the Shah meant that women gained some rights, including the suffrage.

"Iranian women had gained some rights. Maybe if you compare it to now, they weren't significant. But at the time, they were very significant. First of all, we got the right to vote, which is really significant. But there were others too. They had rights to child custody, rights to divorce, limitations on polygamy and rights to abortion. Maybe it was a long way to equal rights but they were important rights."
Sussan Tahmasebi to The Quint
You know about the ongoing hijab protests in Iran, but do you know the disturbing history of women's rights in Iran?

Pre-1979 images of Iranian women in western attires often surface on internet to draw a contrast with women in compulsory veils post 1979 Islamic revolution.

(Photo: Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons)

There was, however, widespread discontentment against the Shah owing to poverty and rising economic inequality. Further, the oppression inflicted by corrupt Shah regime added to the woes of the Iranian people in the 1970s.


"We had personal freedom during Shah's regime but not political freedom. People had the freedom to wear the clothes of their choice, but they didn't have the freedom of expression. One couldn't speak against the Shah or if you advocated for forming a political organisation or workers' union, you would get arrested and executed," remembers Parvaz.

"There were a lot of political prisoners. Every person knew someone who was imprisoned. I, myself, at that time, a young girl in a university, was under watch of the SAVAK (Iranian secret police). Why? Because I wanted to read different books. I didn't organise anything. I was not active in any political group. But SAVAK called me and told me that 'we are watching you and you have to be careful.'
Shahin Navai, Former Entomology Professor at Tehran University, to The Quint
The opposition to the Shah's monarchy was brutally suppressed with forces often resorting to killing of protesters.
You know about the ongoing hijab protests in Iran, but do you know the disturbing history of women's rights in Iran?

The suppression only angered the people more and the people taking to streets against the Shah regime grew multifold.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

With the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as its face, people's movement against the Shah gained rapid momentum. And within a few days, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in 1979, marking the end of 2500 years of monarchy in Iran.


Women's Rights Instantly Curtailed Under the New Religious Regime

You know about the ongoing hijab protests in Iran, but do you know the disturbing history of women's rights in Iran?

After the Shah fled Iran in January 1979, Khomeini returned from his 14-year long exile in February. Soon after, he became the head of Iran.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Soon after taking over Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini's new Islamic government announced that it was compulsory for women in public places to wear a hijab. This did not fo down well with ordinary Iranians, who came out on the streets to protest against it.

"Just a day after the announcement of compulsory hijab, thousands of women took to the streets to protest against it. It was the first time that Iranian women organised such a huge demonstration on their own."
Nasrin Parvaz, Author, Activist and Torture Survivor, to The Quint
You know about the ongoing hijab protests in Iran, but do you know the disturbing history of women's rights in Iran?

Just a day after the announcement of mandatory hijab in 1979, huge number of women organised a protest march in Tehran. Interestingly, it was also  the International Women's Day. The protests continued for six days, from 8 March to 14 March 1979.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Such a big opposition just at the beginning of his rule forced Khomeini to backtrack on his hijab diktat to calm down the situation.


'Islamic Clerics Brought Iran 1400 Years Back'

The mandatory hijab was eventually brought back a couple of years after the women's protest. By then, Khomeini and his religious regime had established their absolute authority in Iran.

"It was actually the war with Iraq, which started in 1980, that helped stabilise Khomeini's rule and consolidated his power," Navai says.

"They rolled out the compulsory veiling of women gradually. First, the women working in government offices were forced to comply with the new dressing law. Many women lost their jobs because they didn't want to accept it," Parvaz recollects. "Slowly, compulsory hijab was introduced to all the places."

"Khomeini said that Reza Shah took the hijab off women and I am going to put it on. It means that both Reza Shah and Khomeini looked at women as an object, not as human."
Shahin Navai

Besides imposing compulsory hijab, the new religious government under Ayatollah Khomeini rolled back some of the laws passed during the Shah regime which had given rights to women.

"Even though women had gained rights during the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of discrimination against women already existed from before the revolution, but they were not justified on the basis of religion," says Tahmasebi.

She adds that after the establishment of theocratic State, new laws curtailing the rights of women were justified on the basis of religion.

"There was a very conservative interpretation of Sharia law that was adopted at the beginning of the revolution, it reduced the age of marriage for girls from 18 to nine, in accordance to an interpretation of Islam. The age of marriage for girls has since been changed to 13. But custody of children went automatically to men. Women had more custody rights before. Also, restrictions on polygamy was lifted."
Sussan Tahmasebi, Iranian Women's Rights Advocate, to The Quint

Tahmasebi argues that while not everything was perfect before 1979, the events following the Islamic revolution meant a "giant leap backwards to 1400 years ago that had no basis in reality."


A Police That Punishes for 'Immoral' Dressing

About two years after the 1979 protest march of women, hijab officially became compulsory for women in public places. To enforce the mandatory hijab, a special force became active, called the "morality police."

They monitored the dress codes, makeups, appearances, and behaviour of people, especially women, in public places.

"We had to cover our heads with veils, otherwise we would get arrested or harassed by pro-regime agents," recalls Parvaz.

With a firm grip on the country, Khomeini's regime began to suppress any dissent or protests it faced.

"I remember the last demonstration against hijab, I was in it. Pro-regime agents followed us and beat us with baton and sticks. We were running to save ourselves and people helped us escape."
Nasrin Parvaz to The Quint

Parvaz, 23 then, was arrested in 1982 and sentenced to death. After serving eight severely torturous years in prison and witnessing executions of several of her activist friends, she was released from prison in 1990.

She left Iran for London in 1993 and has never gone back.

Innumerable women have faced harassment, penalisation and even deaths by the hands of morality police for "inappropriate appearance."

For instance, in 2014 alone, the morality police warned, fined, or arrested 3.6 million women for "inappropriate" dress, according to then head of national security forces of Iran.

Are The Current Protests Just About Mahsa Amini?

The tipping point of the current uprising may have been the alleged custodial death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for non-adherence to the strict hijab law, but it concerns a wide variety of discriminatory laws against women, and this uprising can be seen as the boiling point of a long history of suppression.

The uprising in Iran is the culmination of the fears that women in Iran have been sustaining for the last 43 years. It encapsulates the cries of millions of women in Iran who have been historically treated as second class citizens.

You know about the ongoing hijab protests in Iran, but do you know the disturbing history of women's rights in Iran?

Zan, Zendegi, Azadi – has become the slogan of the Iranian women's movement. The slogan is the Persian adaptation of the popular Kurdish slogan Jin, Jiyan, Azadi – translating to women, life, freedom. The slogan originates from the women of Kurdish independence movement.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The protests that started with the demand for justice to Mahsa and abolition of compulsory hijab for women, have gradually transformed into demands for democratic change and fundamental freedom.

And the demonstrations refuse to die down even after continuously sustaining fatal crackdowns by the authorities that has killed over hundreds of Iranians.

"No matter what, even if this is clamped down, it is going to be very hard to go down to how things were," stress Tahmasebi. "We see this younger generation, these high school girls, who is going to tell them to put on their hijab?"

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Topics:  Iran   Hijab   Iran Hijab Protests 

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