The anti-hijab protests in Iran have unleashed a women’s revolution that has definitively set the stage for challenging Islamic fundamentalism across the world. The protests are occurring in the wake of the custodial death of an Iranian-Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini who was arrested, in September, by the country’s ‘morality police’ for not wearing her hijab properly. She was beaten so severely that she died within three days. Amini’s death has sparked outrage among Iranian women and young men and even extends to conservative sections of society. It has also ignited Kurdish ethnicity people and Sunni and Baluch ethnicity people in Iran’s Zahedan province.
The protests, beginning with women’s demonstrations have, over more than a month, acquired increasingly spirited colours. For the first time in Iran, unprecedented, historic scenes of women defying the religiously-ordained authority of the Supreme Leader and burning their hijab and cutting their hair in public can be seen. The protests have spread to multiple provinces in the country, including traditional and holy sites like Mashhad.
It has been commonly observed that Iran has been the originating place of most of the revolutions and movements that have taken place across West Asia. This time is no exception. The present protests represent, arguably, among the most serious challenge to the Iranian Islamic state since its establishment in 1979, not the least because this is the first women-led revolution over a women’s issue. The reverberations of this rise of Muslim women will be felt not only in Iran but across the Islamic world.
The women-led protests that are raging in full steam presently have already inspired similar supportive protests even in ultra-conservative and oppressive terrorist states like Afghanistan and countries like Turkey and Iran’s Kurdish-dominated region. In many other parts of the world, Muslim women have expressed solidarity with the Iranian protests in various degrees, with all these protests pointing to inevitable questions about the role and treatment of women in Islam in general.
The Genesis of Protests in Iran
The anti-hijab protest in Iran is one among the many protest movements that have occurred in Iran every few years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But this is the first concerted attempt at self-expression led by the women against an explicitly holy symbol of Islam. Therefore, for the first time, the protests are directed not only against the regime but also against Islamic religious symbols.
The protest movement has an interesting history. Historically, the perception of Iranian women has largely been that they have been suppressed in various forms by different avatars of the regime. Be it the question of wearing the hijab or avoiding it, women in Iranian society have been deprived of even their most basic bodily independence and choice. During the time of the old Shah, during the 1930s, wearing a hijab in public places was banned under the law. This was done due to the modernization of Iranian society that was being undertaken, and the close association between the Shah regime and the Western world which had propped it up. The idea of banning the hijab in public led to women’s protests against such an injunction in a deeply religious society at that time.
Disillusionment with the corruption, decadence and excesses of the Shah regime led to a massive people’s movement against it. While liberal sections of society rebelled against the repressive monarchy and wanted democracy, conservative sections of society were disillusioned with the westernization and secularization of Iran under the Shah regime. The economic crisis after 1977 further exacerbated all-round discontent against the regime. However, although people from all walks of life – especially the Communists – participated in it, it was the Islamic clerics that ultimately cornered power in 1979.
A reverse movement was seen after the establishment of the Islamic State after the Islamic Revolution that took place in 1979 which brought to power Muslim hardliners, led by their Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei. The regime sought to enforce the compulsory mandate of wearing a hijab in public places. At that point too, the women rallied against the compulsory hijab order, with tens of thousands of unveiled women marching in protest. Despite the initial popularity of the Islamic regime and the Iranians’ united hatred against the West, the protests were effective in postponing the hijab mandate to 1983, at which point it was made compulsory.
In both cases, the treatment of women in Iran shows how the state, in Islamic culture, tends to use women as objects or property having no voice of their own. The Islamic regime installed post-1989 was instrumental in completely subjugating women and enslaving society in the name of Islam. The regime nullified the Family Protection Laws and lowered the age of marriage from 18 to 13, before reducing it further to nine. It segregated schools by gender. Women lost the right to divorce and to child custody. Men were permitted to marry a second wife without their first wife’s consent or knowledge. In court, a woman’s testimony counted only half of a man’s. The Islamic Law of Retribution, passed in 1981, punished female adulterers with death by stoning. Clerics urged women to breed an “Islamic generation.”
However, despite the near-complete despotism of the Islamic Republic, the country’s youth and women have continued to remain expressive. After the death of Ayatollah Khomenei in 1989, the presidential elections brought Rafsanjani to power. He liberalized laws for women to a great extent between 1989-1997, such as divorce laws, encouraging contraceptives for controlling the population etc. This progress was further accelerated under Khatami who became President in 1997.
However, reformist Presidents could not do much under the Islamic regime, and Khatami soon incurred disfavour from the hardliners. Massive anti-regime student protests broke out in 1999 against the Islamic regime over the issue of suppression of press freedom, and spread from Tehran to other cities as well. The protests were quelled by the hardliners, but laid the foundation for further movements.
In 2009, Iran’s ‘Green Movement’ became yet another instance of people’s discontent against the Islamic state. It was a massive anti-regime movement that killed at least 100 people, with at least 4000 being arrested. Women played highly visible roles in the movement constituting most frontline activists. The movement became so massive that the protestors demanded an institution of all the rights and freedoms that they had sought in the 1979 revolution that was hijacked by the clerics. The Green Movement was finally quelled by 2010, but had, in turn, laid fertile ground for the Arab Spring that rocked the Islamic theocracies of West Asia.
Iran was once again rocked by massive protests in 2017 over inflation and unemployment. The protests were short-lived (due to lack of organization and leadership) and spontaneous, but were intense, spreading across 140 cities, and quickly transforming their agenda from economic grievances to calls for regime change, with slogans like “death to the dictator” and “Khamenei, shame on you, leave the country alone” becoming popular.
The protests were quelled, but once again in 2019 massive protests took place over oil price hikes. The protests spread across nearly 100 cities within a short span of 4 days. These protests also espoused demands for regime change and were directed against Ayatollah Khamenei. The protests took the lives of at least 1000-1500 people, including children according to US State Department estimates, with thousands being arrested.
Soon protests erupted in January 2020 over the incompetence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in shooting down a Ukraine airline with hundreds of Iranians onboard. Protests again acquired regime change overtone, with the slogan being “death to the liars” and “clerics get lost” and spread to various cities from Tehran.
What is common to all these protests is that they have been entirely people-led and spontaneous, and have quickly transformed the issue at hand to calls for regime change. All these protests bear out how much the common Iranians – especially the youth – are repelled by the Islamic fundamentalist regime that throttles them. The older generations may be more conservative, but even they have developed disgust with the way the regime has been handling the country’s affairs in recent years. That is what explains why in case of many protests – including the present one – conservative holy centres such as Qom and Mashhad also became key areas of protests.
Thus, the present anti-hijab protests are preceded by a long history of spontaneous anti-regime eruptions since 1979 in which both men and women have participated.
Women’s Rise in Iran
The history of hijab in Iran has paradoxically served to empower the Iranian women further. In its initial decades, the Islamic regime after 1979 was very popular among the people. That is why when it enforced the mandatory order to wear a hijab in public places, many common Iranian families felt that the public places had become safe for their girls. This encouraged families to educate their girls. Ironically, increasing levels of education have made the subsequent generations of Iranian women more assertive and aware, with many even migrating to United States and other countries. Thus, between 2011 and 2022, women outnumbered men on college and university campuses in Iran, although they represented only a minuscule of Iran’s workforce.
Despite the rising awareness among women, the entire gamut of laws has been biased against women. Married women are not allowed to travel outside the country without the husband’s permission. Women also have limited protection from domestic violence at home, and women’s rights activists have faced harsh sentences for their defiance of compulsory hijab laws and other issues.
The Present Protests and Changing Iranian Society
The death of Mahsa Amini has ignited what have become the biggest protests seen in Iran in a generation, with thousands of protestors in Iran and abroad rallying behind Iranian women in support. This is the first time in the region’s recent history that a nationwide uprising has been ignited by the death of a young woman – and one from an ethnic minority group, no less. The protest has adopted the Kurdish slogan of “Women, Life and Freedom” as its rallying cry. Slogans like “death to the dictator” have also been popular. Within a short span of a month, the protestors are not only rallying against the compulsory Islamic hijab but also calling for regime change, burning posters and demolishing statues of the Supreme Leader of Iran. Despite internet blackouts and the use of brutal force unleashed against the protestors not sparing even minor schoolgirls from death, the protests have shown immense resilience.
The protests, till now, have shown no signs of abating and have even spread to university campuses. Many big male and female Iranian celebrities and journalists have also been arrested. Many Iranian women are of the view that they are not simply protesting in order to reform hijab and other such laws or gain some piecemeal concessions from the government, but were waging a revolution to be free from a Sharia-run state altogether. Whether or not the protestors will be successful in overthrowing the regime is uncertain. However, the spirit with which they are fighting back against Sharia-inspired laws is undying.
During the present protests, according to conservative estimates, the Iranian regime has arrested over 8,000 people, including hundreds of children, and killed more than 200 protesters. The rapid spread of the protests and their appeal to sections of society other than women shows how rapidly Iranian society is changing. A survey conducted by an external organization in 2020 showed that despite the official figure of 99.5% of people being Muslim in the census, in reality only 40% of people in Iran identified as Muslim.
Interestingly, in the same survey, over 60% of the people said they did not perform the obligatory Muslim daily prayers. Similar results were confirmed in a 2020 state-backed poll in which 60% reported not observing the fast during Ramadan (the majority due to being “sick”). Much of this change may have to do with population decline as well and with the rising number of young people (around 22%) within Iran’s nearly 80 million population. In 2020, Iran recorded its lowest population growth, below 1%, as awareness and education among women and youth increased.
The trajectory of protests in Iran as well as the unceasing vigour of the present revolution shows how the prospects of Islamic states, as well as the very future of Islam, will change in the light of the assertion of their rights by Muslim women all over the world. Where external factors have not been able to temper the fundamentalism of Islam, the internal challenge from Muslim women, complimented by rise in education, fall in birth rates and rise in material ambitions, may show the way forward. Even in India, where converted Muslims are more fundamentalist, in many ways, than their Gulf counterparts, women are becoming more aware at a local level.