The Current

Iranian women risk arrest as they remove their veils for #WhiteWednesdays

As the economic protests in Iran fizzle out, a new form of resistance is gaining momentum: women who are defying the compulsory wearing of the veil. Social media movements are both encouraging and documenting their acts of defiance.
Vida Movahed, 31, was arrested for this act of protest.

Read Story Trancript

Women in Iran are waving white clothes on the end of sticks — but it is an act of defiance, not surrender.

During the protests that rocked Iran earlier this month, a powerful image emerged of an unveiled woman waving a white veil on the end of a stick.

Vida Movahed, 31, was arrested for this act of protest. According to reports, she was detained and only released last Sunday.

Hers is not an isolated protest; more and more women are removing their hijabs — and taking the risk of posting pictures online — as part of a movement called #WhiteWednesdays.

Masih Alinejad, the creator of the movement and a host on Voice of America's Persian TV program Tablet, grew up in Iran and wore the veil from the age of seven — as legally required. 

"For almost four decades, we, the women of Iran, have been unhappy about compulsory hijab," she said, "And we had the fear inside our heart."

"But now... I think the government of Iran, they have the fear of these brave women."

More and more women have been joining the campaign. (White Wednesday Campaign/@masihpooyan)

Alinejad grew up in a religious family in a small village, where she was always jealous of the freedom her little brother and other boys enjoyed.

"[They were] free to ride a bicycle, free to sing, free to run, jump in a river," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

He was "the symbol of freedom" that she envied.

In her teenage years, she found moments to remove her hijab in secret, but soon realised many women were doing the same thing in private.

Later in life, living in self-imposed exile in New York, she created the Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom, where she "asked women to publish their photos, to talk about it in public."

The page has been inundated with pictures, videos and personal stories.

Its success prompted her to start #WhiteWednesdays. Through both, Alinejad said she is giving a voice to women who are silenced in the Islamic Republic.

Ebb and flow of protest

Before the 1979 revolution, the hijab was banned in Iran.

Following the Ayatollah Khomeini's decree to cover up, 100,000 people marched bare-headed in the streets in protest.

Shahrzad Mojab, a professor at the women's studies department at the University of Toronto, was among those activists.

"I always mention in my teaching... that I am of the generation that my mother, who is in her early 80s, witnessed the forced unveiling of her mother, and also the forced veiling of her daughter."

She says that the control of a woman's body is an important part of the regime.

"When the regime calls itself an Islamic regime, women become the political cultural symbol of that regime," she said.

"And therefore monitoring, managing, punishing, disciplining a woman's body and their sexuality becomes a very important political policy."

They risk arrest by appearing in public without the veil. (White Wednesday Campaign/@masihpooyan)

She sees movements like #WhiteWednesdays and My Stealthy Freedom as part of "the continuous resistance of women which has started almost 40 years ago."

The economic unrest at the beginning of the year creates a new impetus, she said, with the women's protest now becoming a cultural symbol of resistance.

"There is no way to turn back," she said. "We are hoping to see more of this spontaneous — as well as creative — way of resisting and hopefully it will turn into a more organized way of resisting this regime."

Personal and political

Alinejad said her ultimate aim is not to remove veils entirely from Iranian society, but to overturn their compulsory status.

"After the revolution, the government of Iran has started to write their ideology in our body," she said.

"We want to be free to choose our lifestyle. We want to be free to have the same rights as men having inside Iran."

There are women who do wear the veil who also support her cause, she said, adding that their support for the hijab does not extend to forcing other women to wear it.

"Compulsory hijab is an insult to all society, to all people," she said.

It's an insult to men, she argued, as it suggests men can't control themselves in the presence of an unveiled woman.

"Now you see men joining us and saying that 'We don't own the women. We have to stand next to our sisters, our mothers, our wives and fight for freedom."

This article was amended on Feb. 6, 2018 to note that Masih Alinejad also hosts Voice of America's Persian TV program Tablet.

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin, Julie Crysler and Rosa Kim.