I once spent a week in a region of South Sudan where almost none of the women covered their breasts, and just two weeks later I flew to Iran, where women are required by law to cover their hair with hijabs as a sign of modesty .
It was a stark reminder of how cultures differ, laws vary, and rules about women’s behavior are shockingly arbitrary. I began to wonder why we in the West think our own modesty standards are more appropriate than someone else’s.
For a while after that trip, I felt that hijab rules, such as those I had seen in Iran, were no more outrageous or illogical than our own cover-ups on main streets and public beaches.
It took me a while to realize I was totally missing the point.
Of course it is puritanical, paternalistic and sexist for any government to tell women how to dress – in the US, the Middle East or anywhere else. But in Iran, the hijab laws are about more than just the hijab, and protests against the hijab rules are a protest against something much broader.
In the current turmoil, which has been going on for three months, the hijab — the obligated hijab, that is – should be seen at least in part as a proxy, the palpable symbol of all sorts of societal discontent, including a widespread lack of freedom, the government’s assault on individuality and bodily integrity, the overreach of religion, the denial of self-determination.
Sure were the protests fueled by the country’s outrageous headscarf laws — and in particular by the horrific death in mid-September of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody after being arrested in Tehran for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly.
But in the months since Amini’s death, the protests have grown and spread, becoming a much more widespread cry of discontent against the government. Some 18,000 people have been arrested in protests in numerous cities. Human rights organizations count more than 400 dead by Iranian security forces.
Two protesters were executed this month. One was accused of stabbing two members of a paramilitary force; he was bound hand and foot, with a black bag over his head, and hung from a construction crane. Both executions lacked due process and may have been based on coerced confessions.
As many as a dozen protesters are on death row. Lawmakers have called for no clemency and say chaos should not be tolerated, though the government also appears to be carefully calculating how harshly it can afford to crack down. Authorities have blamed foreign governments for fueling the unrest.
Although the uprising started over headscarves, protesters are now shouting out anti-regime slogans and anti-clerical chants. They burn hijabs, but they also burn statues of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and shout: “Death to the dictator.” The protests reflect the growing rift between the people and the government. “Woman, Life, Freedom” isn’t just about women’s issues — it’s also about censorship and freedom, and it’s an outpouring of discontent from alienated young people who have seen living standards fall and economic grievances rise.
The uprising could be crushed, or it could die down, as previous uprisings did in 2009, 2017 and 2019. But it is clear that the protesters’ complaints will not be satisfied by minor adjustments to the headscarf rules, at least not for long.
The sclerotic government under Khamenei, an 83-year-old ayatollah who has offered no clear plan for succession or reform, had better be wary.
Why and how did the hijab become such a powerful symbol for such a powerful rebellion? Partly it’s Amini’s death, but it’s also that the headscarf is such a blunt and unsubtle reflection of the regime’s determination to control its citizens.
The hijab laws reflect the theocratic leaders’ bizarre obsession with chastity and purity and micromanaging the sexual behavior of men and women. They are justified by the religious authorities on the grounds that women should not become sexual distractions for men.
Many Muslim women wear the hijab voluntarily. That is of course their right. But Iran is one of the few countries that requires it all women cover their heads in public. Some countries have withdrawn or relaxed their headscarf requirements.
The hijab wars in Iran date back at least to 1936, when then-leader Reza Shah Pahlavi banned headscarves in certain public places. Even then, the hijab – or rather the lack of it – was a substitute for “modernization” and “Westernization.” His decree, which lasted only a few years, angered conservative clerics as well as many traditional religious Iranians. (At that time, some women reportedly had headscarves physically ripped off their heads.)
In the 1970s, in the years leading up to the Iranian Revolution, wearing a hijab became a sign of defiance against the monarchy.
Then, in a U-turn after the 1979 revolution, thousands of women took to the streets to oppose mandatory headscarf rules in what were the first protests against the new regime.
The hijab has sometimes been downplayed as the least concern of women in a country that often requires a man’s permission to travel, and where inheritance and marriage laws generally favor men.
But as the protests enter their fourth month, the hijab has once again shown its symbolic – and substantive – power.
On Wednesday, the United Nations voted to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women, whatever that’s worth. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan denounced the executions and other Iranian “atrocities”. Economic sanctions have been tightened.
But in the end, it is the Iranian people – and the depth of their anger and their willingness to continue to fight against the state – that will determine how far this goes.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.