Vida Movahed, the woman who sparked anti-hijab protests in Iran
“Revolutions give birth to their own leaders,” a Russian saying goes and it is just as true in Persian.
The latest revolutionary leader of Iran is Vida Movahed better known as “the girl of Enqelab [Revolution] Avenue.” As protests swept through Iran in late December, Movahed stood on a utility box, removed her white scarf, attached it to a stick and waved the makeshift flag at a crowd.
Video recordings of the incident were widely shared on social media as evidence of Iranian women’s struggle against the compulsory hijab. Movahed was arrested and held until January 28 but her act had triggered a movement.
All over Iran, girls and women of all ages took off their white headscarves in a public place and attached them to a stick as family members recorded the act and distributed the images on social media. Police said 29 women were arrested in Tehran in recent weeks and charged with being unveiled in public.
The government released a poll in which half of Iranian women respondents expresses opposition to compulsory wearing of the hijab.
Movahed’s protest is the latest chapter in a historical struggle for Iranian women’s right to wear — or not wear — the hijab. The little piece of cloth covering the heads of Iranian women has caused many headaches for the country’s rulers over the past 80 years and there have been alternate attempts by the state to prohibit the hijab and to enforce it.
Iran’s history of hijab protests can be traced to January 8, 1936, when Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, issued a decree known as “Kashf-e hijab” — removal of the veil. The move was inspired by social reforms instituted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Amanullah Khan in Afghanistan.
The modernising authoritarian ruler of Iran considered the hijab an impediment to women’s active participation in society. It was certainly thought to prevent female education and employment. At the time, modernising Middle Eastern elites considered the hijab’s removal a precondition for progress and Westernisation.
Reza Shah’s anti-hijab decree remained in force until his abdication in 1941. For those five years, police officers forcibly removed the veil of any women who wore it in public. This led to violent protests, in particular in Mashhad, which were brutally suppressed by the Imperial Iranian Army. Women from religious families no longer left their homes.
Under Iran’s last shah, there was no prohibition against the hijab but the regime encouraged and culturally propagated the idea of being unveiled. This caused sections of the opposition to the shah’s regime to use the veil as a symbol.
During the 1979 revolution, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was largely silent about the hijab, perhaps because he feared alienating the secular opposition to the shah’s regime and all the female political activists. Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani and in particular secular revolutionary leaders guaranteed there would be no restrictions for women in the Islamic Republic. However, as soon as Khomeini consolidated power, he called for the hijab to be compulsory.
On March 8, 1979 — International Women’s Day — there were large demonstrations in Tehran against compulsory wearing of the hijab. The protests continued until March 10, when they were suppressed by thugs mobilised by the revolutionary leadership. By July 1980, Iranian women were not allowed to enter public buildings without a hijab.
Since the 1980s, Iranian women have engaged in a silent protest of sorts against the regime’s policy on the hijab. They have challenged it to varying degrees by uncovering some of the hair. This has developed into a cat-and-mouse game with the religious police, enforcing the Islamic Republic’s hijab code in the public arena.
Movahed and other critics of compulsory hijab, on the other hand, point at the fundamental hypocrisy behind the hijab legislation in the Islamic Republic: If women without a hijab are said to “excite” men, it is the men who should guard their gaze. Many Iranian women increasingly agree with Movahed even at the risk of imprisonment.