In Iran, it has been obligatory for women to wear a head scarf, or hijab, since 1983, in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Since then, women have been forced to wear the long, loose-fitting chador, and the hijab. To make sure the law is respected, morality police patrol the streets. But two major online movements are showing people — inside and outside the country — that Iranian women want to choose.
The movements are known as #MyStealthyFreedom and #White Wednesdays. The women in the videos are not necessarily opposed to wearing the hijab, but they are opposed to being forced – by law – to wear it. And they are willing to risk everything for the right to choose.
Birth of the movements
Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist now living in exile in the United States, is the woman behind these two movements. In 2014, she had posted a photo of herself running down a street in London with her hair flying in the wind. Beneath the photo she wrote “every time when I run in a free country and I feel the wind in my hair, it reminds me of the time when my hair was like a hostage in the hands of the Iranian government”.
That message connected with many Iranian women across the country. Soon Alinejad posted another photo of herself driving unveiled in Iran. This time she added the caption “I am a woman and I know there are many other women in Iran who do not believe in hijab [and] they have such pictures“. Soon enough “I was bombarded by pictures and videos from women inside Iran unveiling themselves, walking in the streets taking pictures of themselves in the streets, in front of police cars or in [the] seaside, or nature” explains Alinejad. And so the movement my Stealthy Freedom was born.
Look at this man's face. When he saw an unveiled woman sitting in her car, he attempted to give her a warning. At that instant, he realised he was being filmed. He grew frantic and became violent. We are exposing the violence of such people in Iran through #MyCameraIsMyWeapon pic.twitter.com/3BLAsdeRFj
— masih alinejad (@AlinejadMasih) April 30, 2018
To keep the momentum and the pressure on the Iranian government to end compulsory hijab, Alinejad says she decided to launch White Wednesdays last year on 24 May. White, because it’s the colour of peace.
In this movement she asked the women to identify each other in public while taking of their white headscarves. Again, she got “many videos of women…..sometimes walking shoulder to shoulder with their husbands, their fathers, their boyfriends and saying no to compulsory hijab in public”.
Punishable crime in Iran
Not wearing a hijab in Iran is a punishable crime. Women risk ten months to two years in prison for being caught without being properly covered. Alinejad explains that from the young age of seven, girls are forced to wear the hijab.
Without it, a girl will not be able to access school, to get a job, or just generally to live in the country, because at all times you are being monitored by the morality police. In short, she says “being a woman means that you leave in a dangerous situation in Iran”.
Obligation of the hijab
In 1979, Iran deposed its Shah and established a theocracy. Since then, the laws of the country have been tied directly to Islamic law, or Sharia. It’s the job of the top religious cleric, the Supreme Leader, to ensure the government’s interpretation of Islam is respected – particularly by women.
But where did this obligation for women to cover their hair come from?
In Islam the main beliefs come directly from the Koran, the holy book. For Muslims, the word of god was dictated directly to the prophet Mohamed. Religious leaders point to its verses to explain why Muslims have to behave in a particular way.
Merryl Wyn Davies is an Islamic scholar and former director of the Muslim Institute in London. She says that although there are eight references to the hijab in the Koran, none of them have anything to do with clothing or refer to terms that one would understand to be a hijab, a chador, or an abaya.
The verse that many point to as a reference for the hijab is in chapter 24, verse 31 which calls upon women “to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity and to draw their head coverings over their bosoms”.
But, stresses Davies, the passage actually begins in chapter 24 verse 30 where it calls upon men “to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity”.
The conclusion taken from this, she explains, is that the Koran is speaking about modesty within a person, and less about “uniforms and pieces of cloth” which reduce both men and women to objects based on appearances.
Another major source for Muslims is the Hadith, a record of the sayings and life of the Prophet Mohammed. “The hadith is debateable territory” adds Davies, as it opens up room for interpretation, rather than it dictating specifics.
It’s for that reason she believes if you were to sit down a group of Muslim and Islamic scholars and ask them if it is obligatory for women to cover their hair “they will tell you ‘well actually not’.”
In the case of Iran, the religious clerics have interpreted the Koran to include this obligation on women. It has also been extended to women not being allowed “to be a judge, to ride a bicycle…to sing solo…to travel abroad” or get a passport without permission from their husbands or fathers explains Alinejad.
And to the Iranian government, says Alinejad, these rules come from Sharia and must be respected. In response to such rules, which are only enforced mainly in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the creator of the movement says if there is an overriding interpretation of such laws “then this is their responsibility to condemn anything that is happening in the name of Sharia laws and Islamic laws inside Iran and other Islamic countries”.
Davies stresses that the Koran is about helping a person make the world a better place and not about “how you lead narrow, prescriptive lives and think you’re going to get to heaven”.
Momentum of online movement
Until such overriding authority is removed, women have started to speak up. A similar online media movement has pushed certain boundaries already in Saudi Arabia, such as the right to drive. And this current movement in Iran continues to gain momentum, despite the risks. Already one activist in March was sentenced to two years in prison for protesting without her hijab.
But as Alinejad highlights, the surge in women risking everything for change has forced the Iranian government to take notice.
“For 40 years they were just the people of Iran, especially the women that had the fear inside their hearts. But now it is the government that fears its own people; especially the women of Iran.
You can follow these movements on instagram and twitter at #mystealthy freedom, #whitewedensdays, #mycameraismyweapon and #girlsofrevolutionstreet.