For Iranian Women, the Uprising Was a Long Time Coming

For Iranian Women, the Uprising Was a Long Time Coming

For Iranian Women, the Uprising Was a Long Time Coming

The protests are about choice—elective rather than mandatory hijab—not unlike the demands of abortion rights supporters in the United States.


In “Shortcomings of Men,” the satirist Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi proposes that men stop trying to educate women and instead invest in edifying themselves, an urgent task because “yours truly does not believe that she is able to edify men.” Dated 1895, the pamphlet represents one of the earliest criticisms of mansplaining in Iran. Around that time, Iranian women protested en masse against a government tobacco concession that would have profoundly hurt farmers and merchants. Women mobilized for other progressive causes and significantly helped in advancing the Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the century. But when it came to drafting the Constitution, their demands were completely dismissed by the country’s leaders. In response, women decided to organize for their own rights and agreed that they should prioritize education, marking the beginning of the women’s movement in Iran.

If nothing else has gone in favor of Iranian women in the 127 years since Astarabadi wrote her pamphlet, her original vision did come true. In 2001, women outnumbered men in university classes, and in 2012, they accounted for 60 percent of university admissions. More recently, the controversial reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh predicted that the next revolution in Iran will be led by women. While Iranian women are given ample opportunity for education, he posited, they are also constantly slighted by the government, deprived of even the smallest of everyday joys. They are not allowed to sing, dance, or dress in public as they please. These contrasting forces will eventually reach a breaking point. It is not clear whether Tajzadeh considers this a concern for the government or for women. But that no longer matters: Women have taken to the streets, with many men by their side, and are calling for the termination of the Islamic Republic. Their uprising is revolutionary in spirit.

You would think that if a Muslim-majority country is facing nationwide protests against compulsory hijab, there must be lots of resentment toward women who wear hijab on will. But that is not the case. This could be explained by the fact that most Iranians know women who wear hijab by choice. It is so common that by itself it does not say anything about that person. A woman may wear hijab out of religious beliefs, but also habit, comfort, or family customs. The recommendation to wear hijab is rooted in Islam, but the motivation to wear it is layered and varies by individual. Put simply, the protests are about choice—elective rather than mandatory hijab—not unlike the demands of abortion rights supporters in the United States. When a woman in Iran shouts, “Get your politics out of my hair,” as an Iranian living in the US, I could add, “And out of my uterus.”

Since I arrived in the United States from Iran in 2005, I’ve found that it’s difficult to explain the distinction between elective and enforced hijab to many Americans, who almost always associate hijab with coercion. I often feel uneasy when I’m in the position of having to say anything at all about it, because of the risks involved: If I speak against hijab, I might be painted as an imperialist with low regard for my “Iranian roots.” If I dare defend the right of women in the West to wear hijab of their own free will, I might be considered an apologist for Islam. The line between the two accusations is quite thin, and I, like many Iranian and Arab women, try to walk it. But for years, I turned down requests from Western media to comment on the horror of arresting and imprisoning women for improper hijab out of fear of adding to the negative image of Iran, which I saw as a product of conservative media. And I was equally terrified of the unintended consequences of speaking publicly about it after learning that many criticisms voiced by Iraqi feminists were used to justify the aggression toward their country. In talking about women’s choice and freedoms, the price of any misstep is high. But I decided to speak up when I came to understand that my silence was more harmful than helpful.

In Iran, state-run TV networks continue to produce and uplift hijab debates. Those debates always seem to end with the same conclusions: that hijab liberates the mind from the base demands of the body, guarantees entrance to heaven, and makes women look better. But in one state interview with a teenager that went viral, when asked about her preference between Islam’s and the West’s notions of women’s dress (with the assumption being that she would defend hijab out of fear), the young girl responded, “Let’s not make it about West or Islam. I think every woman should do what she likes.” In one sentence, she dismissed the ideological polarization that has been central to Iranian politics. And her sentiment is shared by many Gen-Z Iranians.

I like to think that the teenager closed a chapter that started in 1936, when Reza Shah banned all Islamic veils as a sign of “backwardness” and recommended European women’s fashion, forcing women’s rights activists to clarify whether they were on the side of Islam or the West. This is a burden faced by many activists in the Global South. Perhaps we should dismiss polarization altogether and return to a vision of global solidarity in which women are fully in charge of their bodies, as the uprising in Iran seeks. The protests are an inspiring example of what happens when, as one popular piece of graffiti reads, “The body has risen.”

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