The current protests of the compulsory hijab in Iran are finally gaining more than just some social media presence with several mainstream media outlets beginning at least partial coverage of what has become a large and growing movement.
In fact, it has always been so in Iran, it just hasn’t had much press in the absence of larger protests.
Women have been fighting these laws since day one.
With popular hashtags such as #WhiteWednesdays, #MyStealthyFreedom, and #GirlsofRevolutionStreet, it has been taking off across social media and finally gaining some attention from news outlets. Most stories focus more on the arrests of these brave women, and the harsh sentences handed down to them. What they miss is the history of Iran’s women in their protests against mandatory hijab, which began mere days after the current regime seized power in 1979.
The hundred-thousand women’s protest of compulsory hijab in Tehran, 1979.
There is no one single way to practice Islam, yet we hold fast to this notion that Muslim women cover their heads in public. Certainly, a vast number of Muslim women do wear some form of hijab, but Iran has always historically been different from other countries in the Middle East and this issue is no exception.
In fact, the Shah of Iran even banned the hijab from being worn in public. This law was not exactly enforced however, and so some women still continued to wear it even as others were more than free to roam the streets of Iran dressed in the latest fashions.
My own family’s roots in Iran go back at least a hundred years, and until the revolution, no hijab had ever touched any of their heads. This was never the law in Iran before then, and so, it cannot be chalked up to Iranian culture, when it truly isn’t. The vast majority of Iran’s population is Muslim, this much is true. According to the stats, less than one percent of Iranians are non-Muslim, which means that Christians, Jews and ‘other’ all share a very tiny minority.
While wearing the hijab is a part of faith for a massive amount of people in the Muslim world, it is not an automatic given for all. When I ask my mother about Iran during her time there before the revolution, she has to pause a moment to recall anyone she personally knew who wore it. Though she did belong to not one, but two minority groups in Iran being not only Christian but also Armenian, and lived in neighborhoods largely consisting of both, her work and social life held far more diversity.
She gives the question a little thought, but shrugs it off as something “conservative” women adhered to, and not a thing that was popular or common among women in her age group back then. It is not a thing that seems to stand out much in her memory, or hold much of a place in the Iran she knew. She talks more about the mean teacher she once had or how some of her friends would jump over the school’s wall and take off for the day when they had somewhere more fun to be.
These were spirited girls and young women with minds and dreams of their own during a time when they had the freedom to express them and to forge their own destinies.
Mom left Iran the year before the revolution, in 1978. I was with her then, but did not make my appearance for about five more months in San Francisco where she first settled upon her arrival here in the free world.
The revolution of course, came the very next year and was during a time when such events got 24/7 coverage in the media as huge events once did. Since that time, there have been protests in Iran that made for big news here in the USA, most notably in my memory being the 2009 protests over a disputed election.
It is not actually any fight over an election that really shook those of us watching it all unfold, but the death of Neda, who even as she lay dying displayed absolute strength, beauty and courage. For me, she stands as not only a martyred hero for her country and cause, but as a true symbol of what Iranian women are, and have always been.
They are strong. They are brave. They are determined. They are resilient.
This is not their first time fighting this regime, but with the men who are brave enough to rise up against it with them, there is more hope than ever that this could be the last.
In a country where humans have existed for around 100,000 years if archaeologists are to be trusted, then these 39 years of the Islamic Republic are hardly even a footnote. This regime does not define the women of Iran, or the Iranian people as a whole.
Their violent and brutal attempts to radically transform Iran are already failing, and one day this will all fade into memory as a dark but brief period in an otherwise glorious history.
Women will play a large role in making sure of it.