Today, courageous Iranian women are leading the uprising against the Iranian regime. They remind one the era before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the veil was not mandatory. They know the price: many who have taken part in anti-regime protests have been raped and tortured in prison. Pictured: Veiled women appear in a propaganda show on Iranian state television, on July 12, 2014. (Photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)
In October 1979, in a rare interview with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci charged that the veil was symbolic of the segregation into which the Islamic revolution women had cast women. “Our customs,” Khomeini answered, “are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress, you’re not obliged to wear it because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Fallaci replied. “And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.” Fallaci removed her veil and left the room without saying another word. Iranian women, emulating Fallaci, are now leading protests against the regime.
Soon after Iran’s regime admitted having shot down a Ukrainian passenger aircraft on January 8, Iranian women outside Tehran began tearing down posters of the assassinated terrorist, General Qasem Soleimani. A few hours earlier, the ayatollahs had attacked the Ain al-Assad base in Iraq, which houses U.S. troops. Before that, a picture was circulated on social media of an Iranian referee at the Women’s World Chess Championship, Shohreh Bayat, overseeing a game without wearing a headscarf. “People should have the right to choose the way they want to dress, it should not be forced,” Bayat said, challenging Iran’s rule that mandates a strict Islamic dress code for women.
“Should I start with hello, goodbye or condolences? Hello oppressed people of Iran, goodbye noble people of Iran, my condolences to you people who are always mourning,” Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s Taekwondo bronze medal champion, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, wrote after moving to Europe. She, too, protested the “obligatory veil.”
On January 13, three Iranian female television presenters resigned from the regime’s broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). “Forgive me for the 13 years I told you lies”, Gelare Jabbari apologized in an Instagram post after state officials had denied for days that a Ukrainian passenger jet had been shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, killing 176 passengers and crew.
These self-exiling Iranian women are similar to the dissidents behind the Soviet Iron Curtain, who eventually found refuge in the West. Their role in defeating the Soviet Union was fundamental: they opened the eyes of the Western public opinion to the reality in their country.
The Iranian women now openly challenging the mullahs remind one the era before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the veil was not mandatory. Pictures from that time show women wearing no veils. Overnight, clothing then went “from miniskirt to hijab.”
“I’m sorry to say that the chador was forced on women”, said Zahra Eshraghi, a granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini. “Forced — in government buildings, in the school my daughter attends. This garment that was traditional Iranian dress was turned into a symbol of revolution.”
The last empress of Iran, Farah Diba, noted that “in our time, women were active in all sorts of different areas. At one point, the number of Iranian women going to university was more than the men.” But they “are now abused and disrespected and have had their rights taken away and yet they’re so incredibly brave.”
You can see in a photograph from 1979, how women took the streets to protest the veil. “This was taken on 8 March 1979, the day after the hijab law was brought in, decreeing that women in Iran would have to wear scarves to leave the house,” said the photographer, Hengameh Golestan. “Many people in Tehran went on strike and took to the streets. It was a huge demonstration with women — and men… We were fighting for freedom”. Since then, women have not gone out uncovered.
At the time, 100,000 women protested Islamist rule. Today, courageous Iranian women are leading the uprising against the Iranian regime. They know the price: many who have taken part in anti-regime protests have been raped and tortured in prison. The mullahs, too, know that 40 million Iranian women are under their surveillance and that if these women as a group rebel against sharia, the Islamic revolution will implode. This fear may be part of the reason the regime is scapegoating the West.
When Iran’s current supreme “guide”, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a speech about the veil, he blamed Iran’s “enemies” for trying to “deceive a handful of girls to remove their hijabs on the street.” In 2009, the symbol of the Iranian protests was Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman murdered by the regime. The case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning supposedly for “adultery”, spurred rallies in France, which may have had a role her eventual release. Two years ago, another Iranian woman, Vida Movahedi, became a symbol of defiance in Tehran after she waved a white scarf.
Books on Iranian dissent — such as Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran — have been written by women. Women are fighting the ayatollahs. The 1,500 people killed by Iran’s regime in the recent crackdown on protesters, as reported to Reuters by Iranian interior ministry officials, included about 400 women.
According to the Iranian-French novelist Chahla Chafiq:
“Their act challenges us, above all, about the infernal order that the Islamic Republic establishes by making discrimination and violence against women sacred in the name of God… The demonization of women’s bodies as places of sin, symbolized by the obligation to wear the veil, implies a series of prohibitions that alter the lives of women, who are subjected to constant humiliation and suffering.”
A human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has represented women protesting the veil, was sentenced in March to 38.5 years in prison, of which she must serve 12. Activists Yasaman Aryani, her mother Monireh Arabshahi and Mojgan Keshavarz, were arrested after posting a video showing themselves without headscarves while distributing flowers to passengers. Three women charged with “disrespecting the compulsory hijab” have been sentenced to a total of 55 years. Shaparak Shajarizadeh, a 43-year-old woman from Tehran, has been sentenced to two years in prison for removing her veil. Azam Jangravi, who held her headscarf in the air and waved it above her head in a busy street of Tehran, said she did it for her eight-year-old daughter. “I was telling myself: ‘Viana should not grow up in the same conditions in this country that you grew up in'”, she said.
Iran’s mullahs seem to be willing to do everything in their power to destroy this women’s movement. They have sentenced women, who shared videos of removing their veils, to 10 years in prison, and have introduced 2,000 new “morality police” units to break up the women’s movement. The Iranian regime is also producing propaganda videos about the hijab. One girl, who had attempted to enter a football stadium in Tehran disguised as a man, set herself on fire after her trial . Iranian women have “the highest rate of suicide among women and girls in the Middle East.” Seventy percent of suicides in Iran are committed by women, who have so much to lose under this regime.
The veil, however, is not their only problem. Behind the veil, there are more activities that are risky for women in Iran: dancing, singing, playing music or shaking hands with men. Before 1979, Iranian women had freedom. They want it back.
“The flame of feminism is alive in Iran”, Foreign Policy reported . If Iranian feminists who refuse to wear the hijab are brave, their Western counterparts, who wear pink hats, have wretchedly abandoned them. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s former foreign policy chief who, while wearing a chador on official visits to Iran, took selfies with Iranian lawmakers, has said not one word about these extraordinary women.
Masih Alinejad, who helped spearhead the Iranian women’s campaign against the forced wearing of headscarves, addressed female Western politicians who were covering themselves while visiting Iran: “Let me be clear with you: calling a discriminatory law a part of our culture — this is an insult to a nation”, she said. The Iranian regime promptly arrested members of her family.
A recent criminal law in Brunei — death by stoning for sex between men or for adultery — was followed by an international outcry. Iran, however, is doing the same thing: killing homosexuals and hanging women for “adultery.” Why is Iranian barbarism so easily condoned in the West?
Iran’s 1979 revolution created the first modern state based on Islamic principles. The ayatollahs proved that governance based on sharia was possible with the first modern effort to establish a Muslim theocracy. The center of their system was the subjugation of women.
Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall was torn down by ordinary citizens who wanted to reclaim their freedom of movement. Today, the wall of the Iranian regime could be torn down by these ordinary women who want to reclaim the freedom to wear what they like. They are bravely refusing to walk on flags of Israel and the U.S. — and enjoying the wind in their hair again.
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.
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