Defiant Iranian Women Are Showing Their Hair to Make a Point
The last time I was in Iran, it was the summer of 2003, and for months I chafed under heat and rules that I found oppressive. Born in the Midwest to immigrants, in my travels back to my parents’ homeland I reveled in being near my family and witnessing the magnificence of an ancient culture that has modernized in many ways. Yet, it was not easy for me to cope with the imposition of the mandatory hijab, the Islamic dress code that requires women to cover their hair and their skin, save for their faces. Though I am agnostic, I clumsily pulled on black knee-high nylons to cover bare legs in July, donned a shin-length overcoat, and wore a scarf to comply with Islamic law.
For me, casting off the garments came with my return to the West—as soon as the airplane pilot told us we’d left Iranian airspace, I whipped off the hijab, as did many other women on my flight. For women inside Iran, similarly casting off the hijab is a punishable offense—yet they are doing it in droves recently to make a point, publicizing the action via a popular Facebook site, My Stealthy Freedom.
As the site’s moderator, Masih Alinejad, tells Vox in the above video and an interview, these acts of protest aren’t intended to shun religion so much as respect a woman’s right to practice as she wishes. My months-long stint was sweaty and felt awkward, but it’s nothing compared with Iranian women who, after age 7, have no choice but to wear the hijab, even if they may dislike it as much as I did. In the U.S. and the West, many Muslim women don’t wear traditional clothing.
The hijab has always been politically charged in Iran. Women could choose to wear it before rules were instituted after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but nowadays they face punishment if their appearance is deemed immodest—be it a slip of hair, wearing makeup, or revealing too much limb. By contrast, in the 1930s, in an attempt to force modernization in Iran, the country’s king outlawed the hijab and brutally enforced the law for a time, with men ripping modest coverings off pious women. Neither sounds desirable.
As Alinejad explains, many modern women in Iran support less gender-based dress code enforcement—particularly this bullying variety that has persisted over the decades—and allowing women to wear what they choose, and to coexist in harmony.