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Iranian women have been protesting mandatory hijab for decades

Both outside and within Iran’s government, women have been strategizing for this moment. So why did the movement catch fire now?

Demonstrators opposed to the Iranian regime hold a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to those who have died protesting the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who was killed in police custody after allegedly violating the country's hijab rules, outside the White House on Saturday. (Bonnie Cash/Getty Images)
5 min

Loud chants for “women, life, and liberty” have shaken Iran’s streets for the past weeks. They’re part of the popular protests that erupted after young Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in police custody, after being detained for allegedly violating Iran’s conservative hijab laws.

The chant came before the protests, from pro-Kurdish rights movements across the region. That’s because women have been key in organizing those protests. But this is the first time Iranian protesters more generally have taken it up.

While these protests started over women’s freedom of dress, Iranians have joined across lines of age, gender, ethnicity and class. Collectively, they’re expressing their anger and loss of patience with the theocratic state. As in the past, Iran’s security forces have cracked down hard.

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A longer history of Iranian women’s protests

These protests against gender discrimination and mandatory veiling grow from a long history. In my research on women’s rights movements and activism in Iran for the past decades, I’ve found that Iranian women’s rights movements have long demanded equal access to the public sphere — the street, parks, city councils, the parliament and more.

In fact, just weeks after Iran established its theocratic regime, on March 8, 1979, women took to the streets of Tehran to protest after rumors spread that the government would enforce mandatory veiling. As a result, the regime could only insist on hijab in steps, and couldn’t fully enforce mandatory compliance until 1981.

Since then, as I outline in my recently published book, Iranian women have been strategizing on how to challenge gender discrimination in Iranian politics and society, from both outside and within government structures.

Outside formal state institutions, women have for decades been relentlessly agitating for gender equality and greater access to the public sphere. Initially, women’s rights activists and self-identified feminists were the ones who demanded reform of discriminatory rulings, including on forced hijab.

But particularly within the past decade, young women who lack formal ties to feminist movements have joined into such activism, feeling powerful enough to non-violently protest such gendered restrictions. For instance, the Girls of Revolution Street protests began in 2017 when Vida Movahed, a 31-year-old mother, removed her headscarf and waved it in the air on top of a platform on Revolution Street in central Tehran. Many other women followed suit despite the threat of arrest and harassment, removing their headscarves in nonviolent protest. Their images and videos spread quickly through social media. Many men showed their support by posting either selfies showing them donning the hijab themselves, or by appearing in social media expressing their support for their unveiled family members.

Some women within the government took notice of such widespread popular opposition, led by grass-roots women. In 2018 women members of the parliament, most of who had entered the parliament thanks to women’s support of the reformist List of Hope, arranged to have Iran’s Parliamentary Research Center (PRC) study public opinion on the hijab — the first time a formal state institution conducted such a study. The research found that more than half (at least 55 percent) of Iranians disagreed with state’s religious rulings forcing rules on women’s dress. The study also blamed the Islamic regime’s failure in hijab enforcement on violence and arrests by morality police. Former President Hassan Rouhani’s repeated statements that “culture cannot be made with vans and soldiers.”

Iran's security forces have little incentive to ease up on protesters

A conservative takeover

Many women activists whom I interviewed welcomed the nationwide discussions that followed Iranian women and girls’ peaceful protests against mandatory veiling. They also supported the responses of some bold women parliamentarians, themselves products of the Islamic regime, who expressed, often in coded terms, the need to respect women’s dignity and basic rights.

Those debates worried many ultraconservative elites. While preparing for the 2020 parliamentary elections, these conservatives either banned these outspoken women from running or opened judicial cases against them to discourage them to stand for elections.

Given that crackdown, many women activists pushed to boycott the 2020 parliamentary elections, alongside other opposition activists dismayed by the mostly conservative candidate slates. As a result, only 42 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in that election, the lowest turnout since the 1979 revolution. Nearly all incumbent women MPs were replaced with conservative women who have poor records on women’s rights. The regime doubled down on that approach in the 2021 presidential election, which the state-favored hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi won. Since then, the morality police and other security forces have once again been enabled to crack down on Iranians’ civil rights with impunity.

How Iran’s hijab protests differ from past protest waves

Will the continued protests matter?

Iranians have lost patience with the regime. That’s in part because of the conservative takeover and in part because the sanctions are pressuring them economically and socially. They’ve repeatedly protested those economic pressures over the past few years.

But this protest is different. Women are leading this time, for the first time in years. Mahsa’s killing has brought many into the streets to utter their grievances. Various identity groups are joining as they haven’t before: ethnic minorities, youth, women, the unemployed, workers’ unions and more. The women’s demands are becoming part of wholesale challenges to the Islamic Republic itself, making mandatory hijab a symbol of the repressive regime more broadly.

These protests may not force major concessions; escalating government violence and repression may shut them down or force them to change form. But they reveal that Iranian women’s continuing protests are closely tied up with broader movements for democracy and rule of law.

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Mona Tajali (@MonaTajali) is an associate professor of international relations and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Agnes Scott College, an executive board member of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) and author most recently of Women’s Political Representation in Iran and Turkey: Demanding a Seat at the Table (Edinburgh University Press 2022).