Mariam Shariatmadari is now the second woman to be arrested in the Iranian capital
Tehran after participating in protests against the mandatory hijab law in the country. On March
25th Shariatmadari was sentenced to one year in prison after removing her headscarf as a
symbol of protest. Similar charges were drawn against Narges Hosseini earlier this month
resulting in a two year sentence. In both cases the women were charged with encouraging
corruption with the removal of hijab. Despite these arrests which aim to set a precedent to other
protesters, the recent hijab protests continue, as seen with the popular trend
#WhiteWednesdays which encourages Iranian women to wear white headscarves as a
statement against the law.
Hijab in Islam is a concept which asserts ideas of modesty upon both female and male
Muslims. Whilst it is regularly associated with the image of the veil, the real practice and
meaning of hijab is a somewhat disputed issue. Professor Abdel Haleem translates the Quranic
verse 24:31 pertaining to modesty to state that women “should let their headscarves fall to cover
their necklines and not reveal their charms except to their husbands”. However, the translation
of the Arabic word khimar is one of prime importance in understanding the debate regarding
hair-covering in Islam. Whilst many, like Haleem, will cite this specifically as a headscarf, others
have argued that the use of the word khimar is merely to illustrate a form of fabric that was
common at the time; Javed Ahmad Ghamidi argues that this term was used simply because it
commonly understood to represent piece of cloth used for covering, however the emphasis here
was on covering the body, not the hair. Recent feminist Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud
and Kecia Ali have also advocated for more a contextual understanding of the verse by pointing
out that the full covering was only reserved for the wives of the Prophet.
The recent protests shed light on a controversial issue which has been used throughout
Iran’s history as a political tool. Prior to the Islamic Revolution which installed the present
islamically-centered regime, the headscarf was a once again a symbol of protest, however it
was a protest against the secular regime of Reza Shah which outlawed the wearing of the veil.
Ironically, the history of Iran is in some ways repeating itself in this sense; during the rule of
Pahlavi era, in pursuit of a modernised and secular Iran, the Iranian monarchy banned the
wearing of the veil in 1936, leading to hijab ban protests. The Shah was also forceful in his response, employing the army to physically remove veils, and insisting that entry into public
areas would be denied if women appeared veiled.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution ended the Shahdom and with it, secularism in the region.
As Khomeini began changing the face of Iran through Islamic principles, once again the
question of hijab came to the centre. Strikingly similar methods were used to implement the
compulsory hijab law which came into practice in the early 1980s. Women who refused to cover
would be denied access to public areas, and would face losing their jobs if arriving in the
workplace unveiled. Once again, the issue of veiling became a tactic to illustrate the new
political era of Iran; utilising veiled women as the new Islamic image of a country which was
actively eradicating all notions of Western society and secularism.
So where does this leave Iran today? New protests have emerged in recent years as
activist Masih Alinejad founded the #MyStealthyFreedom movement inviting women to share
pictures of themselves unveiled on Facebook. The regime has been severe in its punishments
providing a bleak outlook for the current activists pursuing this cause. What we’re seeing in Iran
is women trying once again to exercise their right to choose to religious practice and
interpretation, a choice which both in secularism and religious society has been taken away
from them. Whether the protests will spread, or even have much effect on the country’s
legislation, one thing is clear; the politics of hijab is at the centre of women’s politics again, and
it will stay there until the voices of Iranian women are heard.
Article by Izna Nadeem
Photograph – The Daily Mail
http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/whitewednesdays-why- iranian-women- want-to- be-
N. Fadhil, (2011), “Not Unveiling as A Feminist Practice”, Feminist Review, No.98, Palgrave
A. Zahedia, (2007), “Contested Meaning of the Veil and Political Ideologies of Iranian
Regimes”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol.3 No.3, Duke University Press