The uprising in Iran is feminist. After all, feminism is not about putting women in power instead of men. It is about self-determination for everyone, men and women. And today’s demonstrators see the headscarf requirement as symbolic of the state’s refusal to grant them self-determination.
However, this self-determination relates to much more than “just” the right to dress as one likes: For the fifty percent of Iranians whose mother tongue is not Persian, it is about being allowed to learn their mother tongue at school; for lesbians and gays it is about being able to live their sexual orientation freely; for the Baha’is it’s about practicing their religion – and so on and so forth.
In his song “Baraye” (Eng. “For” or “Because”), which has become the anthem of the uprising, artist Shervin Hajizadeh summarized a series of tweets in which protesters describe why they are taking to the streets: For dancing in the street; for the girl who wishes she were a boy; for freedom, freedom, freedom. And there are probably just as many men as women who are currently taking to the streets to do this. The videos that are now going viral probably give us a skewed picture on this question as well.
But the headscarf is a symbol for all of this and that is why the young girls are now tearing off their headscarves. Ironically, the headscarf has been the symbol par excellence for system change once before, namely for the one that took place in Iran in 1978/79. And it could be like that again now.
Modernization with the crowbar
The headscarf is closely intertwined with the history of emancipation in Iran, in the sense of liberation from paternalism – and not just since 1978, the year of the last Iranian revolution in the 20th century: in 1936 Reza Shah Pahlavi banned the headscarf. Reza Shah, the Cossack general who had risen to the rank of emperor, wanted to modernize his country by any means possible, including externally. Even with the crowbar. For this reason, Iranian women were forbidden by law to wear a headscarf. The authorities tore it off the women’s heads on the street.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who succeeded his father to the throne, was initially a rather weak, compliant ruler. Under his regime, the headscarf ban was less strictly enforced. At school and on the streets, girls and women were free to wear a headscarf. However, a headscarf was still detrimental to a career. An employee in the ministry or in the bank, for example, had to choose between a job and a headscarf. Headscarves were also not allowed to be worn at universities.
Mohammad Reza continued his father’s Westernization policy, which was once again evident in appearances, such as the women in miniskirts and stiletto heels that could now be seen on the streets of Tehran.
This new appearance of women, but also the fact that they were now much more visible in public, met with resistance from parts of the conservative-oriented population. In an impressive study, the sociologist Martin Riesebrodt demonstrated that changing the role of women was not just one of many items on the Islamists’ agenda, but in fact their central concern.
Ali Shariati, for example, who is probably the most important ideologue of the revolution, said that the new Iranian woman had become a doll who only wanted to please. He wrote: “So-called religion makes mourners out of our women, so-called civilization barmaids.” The changes not only affected the woman’s appearance, but also her legal status. In the 1960s, Khomeini’s criticism of the Shah was also rooted in the new family law, which was intended to bring women more legal equality.
The headscarf as a symbol of protest against the Shah
Although the Shah did introduce some rights that improved the legal status of women, including giving them the right to vote, he remained primarily a dictator for them too. In order to make their anti-Shah attitude outwardly manifest, many Iranian women donned a headscarf in 1978 when they took to the streets to demonstrate against political repression. At that time, the headscarf had become the ultimate symbol of the protest against the Shah.
Iran, 1979: The actress and women’s rights activist Maliheh Nikjoomand argues with a cleric about compulsory veils
Women also played a crucial role in overthrowing the Shah’s regime. The opposition politician and women’s rights activist Parvaneh Eskandari, who was murdered by henchmen of the Islamist regime in 1998, once said these sentences, which may come as a surprise today in view of the legal situation of women under the current regime: “The women have (when the Shah fell, editor’s note Red.) played the same role as men. But one mustn’t forget that women had greater limitations in the Shah’s time. They saw religion as a way to overcome their limitations.”
Revolutionary leader Khomeini had promised freedom in all areas, but what followed was a repeat of history, albeit in reverse. The headscarf became compulsory. Three rulers, one maxim: They dictate to women how they have to dress, even denying them self-determination in terms of clothing.
Iranian headscarf debates
However, things had been moving in Iran for a long time before the protests broke out – at least in the debate about the headscarf. Even among the clergy, who are traditionally the biggest advocates of the headscarf. Ayatollah Fazel Meybodi from the theological capital of Ghom, for example, explained many years ago: “The religious enlightener argues like this: I believe in the headscarf. But that a government wants to interfere here and says, woman, why aren’t you wearing a headscarf, no, I don’t accept that. That’s not the job of a government.”
Liberal cleric Hassan Eshkewari was charged with apostasy in 2001. In Iran, this is punishable by death
It was not without risk to make critical statements about the headscarf. The case of the liberal clergyman Hassan Eshkewari, for example, shows this. He had said: “The headscarf is not one of the essential characteristics of religion, but one of those social imperatives that can change with the circumstances.” For this he was accused of apostasy in 2001 and in Iran it carries the death penalty. (Eshkewari was initially sentenced to death, which was then commuted to imprisonment, editor’s note.)
Not only Iranian history can be written on the basis of the headscarf. It is also the symbol par excellence for the Iranian system. There are probably only three ideological pillars that make Iran an Islamic republic. Two of them, Iranian state doctrine and anti-Americanism, have come under increasing scrutiny since the second half of the 1990s.
But the headscarf still exists. Not without reason, the West always first associates it with the word “Iran”. If the country abolished this symbol, that would probably be sufficient evidence for the West of Iran’s willingness to reform. But that would be short-sighted.
The fear goes away
That’s why the Islamists will hold on to the piece of cloth for as long as they possibly can. The women’s rights activist Mehrangiz Kar once gave an obvious reason why Islamic systems of rule usually start with the oppression of women: “They choose the weakest victims in order to create an atmosphere of fear. When there is fear, everyone is afraid and the rulers can stabilize their power. It is inconceivable that half of the people live in fear and at the same time the population as a whole is confidently dealing with political problems”.
This fear has now disappeared for many. The very young generation is fed up with being bullied, reprimanded and controlled, that they now go and fight back when the regime’s henchmen beat them up. This is what you see on a lot of videos circulating on social media right now, and it’s new.
This struggle for self-determination shows a courage and cohesion that has not been seen before. So what we see now is feminist. And feminist foreign policy would mean supporting the Iranians in this feminist concern, the desire to live self-determined lives.
Katajun Amirpur is an Islamic scholar and Iran expert. Her biography of the Iranian revolutionary leader and former head of state Ayatollah Khomeini was published in 2021: “Khomeini: The Revolutionary of Islam” (CH Beck). She lives and works in Cologne.