Women in Iran have been saying #No2Hijab and #WalkingUnveiled, risking fines and even prison time for violating the strict regulations for women’s dress ushered in following the country’s 1979 revolution.
“Iranian society never really wrapped its head around how much of a role religion was going to play,” Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Pennsylvania, says of the country’s pre- and post-revolutionary eras. “I think a lot of other Islamic dominant societies still grapple with it.”
What was once a social media campaign has unfolded into a full-blown civil disobedience movement, gaining steam and fueling a protest last month on the country’s National Day of Hijab and Chastity. Across Iran, women unveiled their heads, some posting images and videos freely and others anonymizing their faces with emoji and blurring to avoid prosecution. Weeks on, the protest reportedly has resulted in multiple arrests.
The last few years especially have seen an explosion of pushback against the compulsory hijab, rooted heavily in the 2014 creation of an online campaign called My Stealthy Freedom that collected photographs of unveiled Iranian women and continuing with 2018’s Girls of Revolution Street protests, as well as criticism of the country’s morality police – the primary enforcers of the hijab law.
Eight years ago, 49% of poll respondents in Iran said the choice to wear the hijab should be a “private matter,” according to a report released by the Iranian Center for Strategic Studies, a research arm of then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s office. Survey results published in 2020 showed 72% of Iranians – with a majority of those surveyed living in the country – were opposed to the compulsory covering.
But just what has inspired the outpouring of opposition in the last few years? U.S. News recently spoke with Elnaz Sarbar, an activist and frequent collaborator with My Stealthy Freedom and other women’s rights organizations, about the status of the movement against compulsory hijab and its progress over the past decade. Sarbar grew up in Iran but has since immigrated to the U.S.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In this self-portrait, Iranian activist Elnaz Sarbar shows her support for the movement against Iran’s compulsory hijab laws.Elnaz Sarbar
Those who haven’t been to Iran may not understand the pressure to wear the hijab. Could you get into that a little?
I was born after the revolution, so I grew up with it. You are forced to wear the hijab when you are young. So basically, when you go to school, you have to wear a scarf, and if you’re not wearing a scarf, you’re not allowed at school. So you can’t get an education. You cannot work. You cannot even appear in public. If a woman appears in public without one, she can get fines, lashes – up to 74 lashes – or imprisoned.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not Muslim – if you’re a Christian. It doesn’t matter if you’re a foreigner traveling in Iran. You have to wear it in public.
There’s been discontent with the compulsory hijab in Iran dating back decades, but how did the current movement get started?
Women were gradually pushing back: “OK, I’m going to have a smaller scarf. I’m going to have it show more hair. I’m going to have it tighter, shorter, more colorful, with the buttons open in the front.” Women were pushing back in that regard. But in my mind, the change came along when Masih Alinejad started a campaign called My Stealthy Freedom in 2014 and encouraged women to publish photos and videos of themselves walking around without the scarf.
At first, a lot of people said the hijab was not a big deal. Even Iranian feminists thought that we had other, more important things to talk about. For example, as a woman, you don’t have the (same) right to divorce. And your testimony counts as half of the testimony of a man.
But this is not a minor issue. We’re getting to the point that people really understand it. Personally, I think it’s very important because you’re a child and told you have to put this on your head. For me, I was given this message that my opinion doesn’t matter, that I don’t have control over my body. How can I have control over anything else? How can I question anything else in society?
So it creates self-censoring – a lack of self-confidence in women to ask questions and drive transparency and accountability. That is a very important issue in the Islamic Republic because there’s a lot of corruption and no accountability.
Is there a feeling that public opinion might be shifting significantly?
As part of Masih’s campaigns, we see videos of men who are wearing the scarf with their wife or sisters who are not, taking a picture together and saying, “We support women having the choice.” There are women with chadors (long scarves that leave the face visible but cover most of the body) that want to keep the have hijab themselves but are okay with other women having the choice not to wear it
So definitely, the support has increased a lot in recent years. People are more daring. I talked with a girl who told me that she has been walking without a scarf for the past two years. This is now part of her daily routine.
This is a result of 10 years of going toward this. It did not happen overnight. And we still have a good chunk of the way to go because we need more support from men, especially, and the outside world.
What can those beyond Iran’s borders who want to support the cause do?
So one challenge we face is that outside Iran, people recognize the Islamic Republic as the official government, and that gives them power. For the Taliban, for ISIS, people know how bad they are. For the Islamic Republic, the image they have portrayed is much better. But in reality, it’s the same philosophy. They’re just doing it with smiling faces and better English.
We would like people to be aware of our struggle and not just say it is our culture. This is a criticism that must be applied to Western feminists – especially women in politics – who go to Iran and put on the scarf as a matter of respect. And to us, this is heartbreaking because people living in Iran put their lives in danger when they go in the streets and do social disobedience.
I think feminists outside of Iran also have a lot of experience, so collaboration with them could help us, and their support means a lot to us.