Deciding to write this article was hard. Because I love Iran, and long to go back. Full of colour, mountains, poetry, art, science, architecture, untold histories and humanity; and home to my beautiful family – Iran’s the most vibrant country I’ve ever visited. Publishing this means not going back.
“Zanam, zanam, zanam.” I’m a woman, I’m a woman, I’m a woman. That was the chant of a group of women in Iran on 08 March 2018, International Women’s Day. If Iran’s women chant those words in the face of a misogynistic and brutal penal code; it’d be an embarrassment, sitting in the comforts of a coffee shop in London – where I sit purely because of the lottery of birth – not to chant them from here.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) interpretation of the Islamic rules relating to women is discriminatory. It offends the Islamic schools of thought that celebrate women, locating ‘paradise’ at the mother’s feet. IRI’s spin on Islamic law requires girls over nine to wear hijab and wear loose clothing, or face punishment.
In the early days of the IRI, its penal code promised up to 74 lashes for any woman without hijab in public. This later changed to a lengthy prison sentence range and/or a fine. Earlier this year, Iranian police warned that women without hijab in public could be charged with inciting corruption and prostitution, facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Clothing restrictions in the opposite direction were in place before Iran became the IRI. In 1936, Reza Shah banned the veil. Veils were forcibly and violently removed if worn in public. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s Iran decriminalised wearing the veil, but this didn’t change the negative mainstream attitude towards it.
Today, a large population of Iranians are displaying civil disobedience. Taking to the streets with their hair illegally on show, they aren’t calling for a hijab ban. But the opposite: the freedom of choice.
In December 2017, Vida Movahed stood on a telecommunications box in Tehran. Peacefully protesting, she took off her white headscarf and waved it in the air. She was arrested and detained (it’s reported she was recently released). Vida became the face of the White Wednesdays movement; which launched earlier and became the most recent cause uniting everyone against compulsory hijab – female or male, for or against hijab.
Walking, dancing and singing in public without hijab – women continue to defy the IRI’s dress code for women. But not without consequence. On 01 February 2018, the Iranian Police Department proudly announced they’d arrested 29 women for not observing the ‘Islamic’ dress code. Since then, more activists have been violently arrested with impunity, detained and convicted for breaching the state’s legal and moral codes.
The following are a few examples of recent arrests: In February 2018, Maryam Shariatmadari stood on a structure, protesting without her hijab. An officer pushed her with full force off the structure. It’s reported she sustained an injury requiring surgery. She was arrested, charged with ‘fostering bad a hijab’ and ‘acting against national security’, and sentenced to one year in prison. In the same month, security forces beat Hamraz Sadeghi, causing her injury during a protest, and arrested her. In July 2018, Maedeh Hojabri was arrested for posting a video of herself dancing without hijab on Instagram. Shaparak Shajarizadeh was recently sentenced to two years imprisonment and an 18-year suspended sentence for taking off her hijab off in public.
Lawyers defending activists often find themselves in prison cells too. In upholding their clients’ human and limited civil rights, they face charges of spreading propaganda and disturbing public order. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a fearless lawyer in Iran whose career is dedicated to the defence of political activists, and even her husband, were arrested in June and September 2018 respectively.
In prison, activists are subject to inhumane conditions. These include solitary confinement, inadequate food and undrinkable salty water, unsanitary facilities, no access to healthcare or lawyers, and violence. This lines up with the promise of Tehran’s chief prosecutor, Dolatabadi: we “must act with force against people who deliberately question the rules on the Islamic veil”.
I last went to Iran in 2011 when I was 18. I wore sandals in the scorching summer heat, with my fluorescent-pink coloured toenails on display. A member of the morality police approached me. He ordered me to go to the nearest shop, buy nail varnish remover and use it on my toenails. Kneeling down in public, with him towering over me, I obediently wiped the colour away.
Unfortunately for the IRI – not all Iranian women are as obedient as my 18-year old self. They’re feisty, rebellious and starving for change. As the delirious female prisoner said at the end of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, a play at the Omnibus Theatre about the solitary confinement of an Iranian woman following her protest against forced hijab: “Iran belongs to our sisters”. To the Girls of Revolution Street.
From theocratic states like Iran to ‘secular’ ones like France, Islamic dress codes Muslim women a battleground for state legislation. Iran criminalises women for breaching the codes. France, whose national motto is “liberty, equality and fraternity”, criminalises women for following them.
Both styles pose as defenders of morality. In Iran, the moral undertone of compulsory hijab is that the veil protects women from objectification and preserves their honour. In France, the moral undertone is that Islamic dress codes are misogynistic and oppressive; and they interrupt France’s so-called secular values. The xenophobic French approach treats women as ‘victims’ rather than followers of Islam, and is surely grounded on the assumption that a woman is incapable of choosing her own identity and beliefs – so incapable that the state is required to run to her rescue by criminalising her identity. The supposed victimhood of muslim women is used to build a case for racialised policing and exclusion.
Women continue to defy these restrictive laws by walking the streets bare-headed, or donning the hijab. After all, where there is oppression – there is resistance.