Shared from the 1/31/2018 Financial Times (US) eEdition

Iranian women remove hijabs in show of anti-cleric defiance

Protests are first of their kind in decades and follow unrest over economy


In the frame: Iranian women wearing hijabs attend an exhibition in Tehran. Below, a woman protests by holding a white hijab on a stick

Atta Kenare/AFP


A bouquet of white clematis lying on Tehran’s Revolution Avenue marks the spot where two Iranians triggered the latest challenge to the Islamic regime: women removing their headscarves in public to protest against the strict dress codes imposed by their clerical leaders.

This week, about a dozen women have stood on busy streets in the Iranian capital, defiantly lifted their white, black and red headscarves and held them aloft on sticks, according to posts that have gone viral on social media.

At least one woman took similar action in the conservative city of Mashhad, home to one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites, last week.

“I am a proud Muslim and pray everyday, but I don’t fear giving my life to protest against the obligation of wearing a hijab which should be a personal matter,” says Elham, 44, whipping off her headscarf as she walks in Tehran. “I cannot force my 11-year-old daughter to cover her hair. How can the regime do that to mature women?”

The protests are the first of their kind since the early days of the 1979 Islamic revolution and come hot on the heels of demonstrations against economic hardships that rattled President Hassan Rouhani’s government last month. The women’s defiance highlights how the Islamic regime’s ideology is under pressure from different segments of society as civil disobedience rises among a youthful, urbanised population that has become more secular and is thirsty for change, analysts say.

The December protests mostly involved young, working-class men outside of Tehran, while the hijab demonstrations appear to be fuelled by anger among the middle class.

“What ‘the daughters of Revolution Avenue’ have done reflects a turning point in the fight against the compulsory wearing of the hijab, with women showing no fear,” says Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer who spent more than three years in jail on charges of “propaganda against the system” after being arrested in 2010. “The new round of protests are public and peaceful moves to reject complete control of politicians on people in all aspects of their lives,” Ms Sotoudeh adds.

The hijab protests were inspired by a woman who removed her headscarf in Tehran in December. The 31-year-old mother, now dubbed the “Daughter of Revolution Avenue,” stood atop a street-side telecoms box for about 45 minutes before police and plainclothes security officers arrested her and put her in prison for a month.

“She came down with no resistance and was made to wear the white headscarf that she had put on the stick,” says a shopkeeper who witnessed her protest. Her case was overshadowed by the outbreak of the economic protests, but after she was reportedly released over the weekend, others have picked up the baton.

A second woman, known on social media as Narges Hosseini, was arrested on Monday while making a similar demonstration, witnesses said. At least six others removed their headscarves yesterday. It was not immediately clear if other protesters were detained.

Under the republic’s penal code, a woman who appears in public without a headscarf faces up to two months in jail or a fine of up to 500,000 rials ($15). The authorities have in the past arrested many women for wearing a “bad hijab” and lashed them, which lawyers consider illegal because no such punishment exists in the law.

Many Iranian women consider themselves as pioneers of women’s rights in the conservative Middle East.

The Islamic revolution inadvertently led to more women pursuing higher education as conservative parents were comfortable with their daughters attending universities with clerics overseeing the system. Less than a quarter of university places were taken up by women before 1979, compared with about 46 per cent today.

And a young generation of educated women are often at the forefront of demands for social reforms. Their frustration is exacerbated by the knowledge that even Saudi Arabia, the ultra-conservative kingdom, is easing some restrictions on women, including a promise to lift a ban on driving. This has prompted some Iranian women to fear that they will fall behind their regional peers in terms of social freedoms, even though they face less restrictions than Saudi women.

“I don’t like hijab, which is a means for social pressure on women and girls,” says Romina, 15. “Whether I am religious or not is none of the politicians’ business. I cannot be forced to go to heaven.”

Mehdi Karroubi, an opposition leader, who for decades was a regime insider, yesterday released an open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei which blamed the supreme leader for the mounting discontent.

“I urge you to accept responsibility for the policies over the past three decades,” Mr Karroubi, who is under house arrest, told Mr Khamenei with unusually blunt criticism.

“Considering your presence and influence at the highest echelon of the power hierarchy, you should accept that the current [crisis in] political, economic, cultural and social issues is the direct result of your strategic and executive policies.”

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