As It Happens

Why some Iranian women are removing their hijabs in protest

At least two women have been arrested for taking off their headscarves in protest in Tehran — and activist Masih Alinejad says the phenomenon is spreading across Iran.
A woman holds a white hijab in protest of Iran's mandatory dress code. (White Wednesdays Campaign )

At least two Iranian women have been arrested in Tehran in recent weeks for taking off their headscarves in protest — and activist Masih Alinejad says the phenomenon is spreading across the country.

Social media posts Monday showed several women in Iran protesting the obligatory Muslim headscarf by taking theirs off and waving them on sticks.

The Islamic dress code, in place since the 1979 revolution, considers Islamic veiling or hijab obligatory for any female above 13 in Iran and says they should cover themselves from head to toe while disavowing any figure-hugging dress. 

Alinejad, an Iranian writer and activist who lives in New York City, launched the campaign My Stealthy Freedom, which asks women in Iran to post pictures of themselves without their hijab, and White Wednesdays, which asks them to wear white headscarves and take them off in defiance of the rules.

She spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the recent protests. Here is part of that conversation.

Why are some women in Iran removing their hijabs in protest right now?

Because the hijab is the most visible symbol of oppression. 

They know that they put themselves in danger. They know that it's a risk for them. But they want to be heard. They don't want any religion to interfere with their personal rights and personal life.

A woman hoists a white headscarf on a stick in front of police officers in defiance of Iran's laws. (White Wednesdays Campaign )

Do you know how much of this is happening in the country right now?

At first, it happened only from one woman called Vida Movahed. She put her white headscarf on a stick to protest compulsory hijabs. The same day she got arrested. But the day after, women started to support her under a hashtag called #WhereIsShe.

And then women started to do exactly the same as Vida did in the street. They started to put their headscarf on a stick and protest.

What has happened to Vida Movahed? 

She got arrested and I'm sure that she's still under pressure. But the second girl, she did a protest on her side, got arrested as well. Her name is Narges Hossein. And  Narges is in a notorious prison called Gharchak.

It shows that they think that if they arrest women, they can stop the protest. But as you see, from different towns, different cities around Iran, people are joining the protest, making their headscarf like a flag to object a compulsory hijab.

[Editor's Note: A lawyer for the arrested women told Agence France-Presse that Movahed has been released from custody, and Narges is in custody with bail set at five billion rials ($185,000 Cdn).]

What are the normal punishments if women don't comply with the mandatory dress code involving headscarves?

In the Islamic republic of Iran, if you take off your headscarf and you appear in public unveiled, you get fined, you get arrested, you get lashes. You will be kicked out from your school if you are unveiled. You won't be able to get a job. And I have to say, you won't be able to live in your country if you don't want to wear a compulsory hijab.

When we fight against a compulsory hijab, we don't fight against a piece of cloth. We fight for our dignity. We fight for our identity. And we fight for our personal lives. 

We're not against those women who want to wear hijabs, but we don't want them to be pushing us in a situation to wear their dress code, which we do not believe in.

How much support do you think there is among average Iranians for these gestures and for the idea of giving women choice in terms of what they wear?

The most important thing is now men joining us. Because the government of Iran always [wants] to use men to apply these discriminatory laws to women. They always say that if your wife or your mother or your sister do not wear Islamic dress code, that means you are a dishonourable person.

So now we see that men [are] joining women by putting the headscarf on a stick in public and saying: "We, the men of Iran, do not own the women."

What kind of pushback have you received for your activism? Have you been personally targeted?

Of course I have been personally targeted by the government of Iran. They attacked me by ... labelling me, Masih Alinejad, as a prostitute. Or, you know, on Iranian state TV saying that Masih was raped by three men because she undressed herself. 

But when I compare these attacks to those women inside Iran putting themselves in danger, being arrested, I don't think labelling me is comparable.

Sometimes it makes me upset when the government attacks me  — but when I see these brave women, it makes me think I have to keep going.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that two women were arrested in Tehran this year for removing their headscarves. In fact, Vida Movahed was arrested Dec. 27, 2017.