How Iran’s Hijab Protest Movement Became So Powerful

How Iran’s Hijab Protest Movement Became So Powerful

Last month, Iran’s morality police arrested Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish Iranian who was visiting Tehran and apparently revealed some of her hair. She was sent to a reëducation camp, and, several days later, died while in custody. Her family members suspect she was killed in a beating at the hands of the police. Her death set off the most widespread protests—many of which have included women removing the head coverings mandated by Iran’s conservative government—that the country has seen since the Green Movement of 2009. The authorities responded by cracking down harshly, and there have been unconfirmed reports of protesters being killed by the government. The Iranian regime, currently led by an ailing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has tried clamping down on Internet access as well.

To talk about the situation, I recently spoke by phone with the Iranian scholar Fatemeh Shams, who has been living in exile since 2009. Shams teaches Persian literature at Penn, and is the author of the book “A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-option Under the Islamic Republic.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what distinguishes the current protests from others in Iran’s past, the place and importance of Iran’s Kurdish minority in the uprising, and the benefits and drawbacks of leaderless movements.

To what degree is this protest movement something new, and to what degree is it an extension of protest movements that have happened in Iran in the past?

I think you can get a very good sense of any revolutionary episode or movement from its slogans. And the central slogan of this revolution, in my view, is quite different from previous ones—from the one in 1979, and then if you go back in history, to the turn of the twentieth century, which was the constitutional revolution. The central slogan of this revolution is “Women, Life, Freedom.” You can compare this with one of the main slogans of the 1979 revolutionary movement, which was “Bread, Work, Freedom.” It was the central slogan of the Communist Labor Party, which had been inspired by the revolutionary movement in Russia.

But here, the focus, the core of this revolutionary movement, is the bodily autonomy of women, and reclaiming the bodily autonomy of women. This slogan comes from the Kurdish freedom movement, and is a result of decades of grassroots activities and efforts of Kurdish women in one of the most economically deprived regions of Iran, the Kurdish provinces. The Kurdish women of Kurdistan and Turkey used this slogan for the first time. And Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the emancipatory Kurdish movement, in 1998 gave a very famous speech in which he said that women are basically the first captives in history and until they’re not liberated, any emancipatory movement, in fact, will be doomed to fail.

In the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s brutal killing at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s hijab patrol, this particular slogan goes viral. It first was chanted by those who attended her funeral in the city of Saqez, in Kurdistan. And then after that, in Sanandaj, another key, major Kurdish city in the west of Iran. And now you hear it really all over Iran. You hear it in areas like Kelishad va Sudarjan. In the cities such as Mashhad in the Khorasan province, in Isfahan. In the southwest in Khuzestan. So right now, even internationally, in all of the international protests in the past two weeks, you hear this slogan.

So it has gone beyond the Kurdish cause. It originates there and it also includes the aspirations of the Kurdish emancipatory movement. But at this point, it really alludes to how women have taken center stage in leading this revolutionary movement in Iran. In the past, women’s rights were always important. But in the nineteen-hundreds, for example, in the constitutional revolution, it was always an aftereffect of the revolution. It was one of many other revolutionary demands. This time it's first and foremost.

How would you compare this protest movement to the Green Movement from about thirteen years ago? That was also a movement against the current regime. Does this feel like a continuation or something distinct?

I think this movement is the continuation and accumulation of all the sociopolitical, gender, ethnic, religious grievances and sufferings of the past forty-four years. But also, it definitely relies on a much longer history that takes us back really to a hundred and fifty years ago, to the mid-nineteenth century. To answer your question, I think it's definitely the continuation of the 2009 Green Uprising. And I think one of the ways in which you can compare the two movements is the iconic images of two women, Neda Agha-Soltan, who was also a young, beautiful, defiant woman, who was brutally killed while her eyes rolled towards the camera in June, 2009. And her video went viral and became basically the face of the uprising. Compare it to what we see today: the disturbing image of a beautiful twenty-two-year-old Kurdish woman, in the hospital, going viral and suddenly sparking these nationwide protests.

But the difference, I think, is that back in 2009, there was still hope for reform. People there were still chanting in the streets for a free and fair election. The main slogan was “Give me back my vote.” There was still a belief that the system could be reformed, in the sense that, if there were a fair election and a free election, the protesters could possibly have a candidate that represented their hopes and their demands, to some extent. Today’s revolution is completely leaderless in the sense that none of the previous figures, political figures such as Mohammad Khatami, who was the ex-President of Iran, none of these are being called upon. People in the streets are not waiting for anyone to come and take the lead. They are the leaders of the revolution. And at this point, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that what’s happening right now was a response to the brutal killing of this innocent woman. But at this point it has gone much beyond that.

Part of the reason that this movement is leaderless, I assume, is that the people who would be the political leaders have been stripped of any power. They are not running in elections that people thought had a chance of being fair and they've been under house arrest or whatever else. But if the leaderlessness comes in part from a place of powerlessness, what does it mean for the movement that it has not coalesced behind a leader or a political party? Do you think it’s a strength of a weakness?

I think it’s a point of strength. It has made it very difficult for the security forces and for the government to actually suppress this movement. For example, after what happened at the Ashura protest [where violence broke out between Green Movement protesters and pro-governments forces] in 2009, the government put the leaders of the movement under house arrest up to this day: Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami, Zahra Rahnavard.

And as soon as they were put under house arrest, the uprising was pretty much shut down. A sense of extreme helplessness and hopelessness came with that event. At this point, I think one of the reasons that it has become extremely difficult and challenging for the government to come up with a response or an effective way to shut down the current protest is that they can’t really go after a particular figure.

They tried. They had mass arrests in the past few days of journalists, and of people who they thought could potentially be leaders. They did that, but the protests haven’t been shut down. They couldn’t shut it down. In fact, it has become more widespread. Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human-rights lawyer who has represented many of these women who, over the past ten years, have been sentenced to jail or summoned to court on the basis of not observing the compulsory hijab. She recently said this movement is leaderless and is only led by those women who are doing this one revolutionary act. And that revolutionary act is not carrying a weapon. They’re not armed. This is completely peaceful. And the only thing that they’re doing is they’re harmlessly taking something off of their head and they’re walking in the streets of Iran. The figure of this revolution is the body of these women, these unveiled women who are walking in the streets without harming anyone. Without even chanting “death to the dictator” or saying anything harmful against anyone. Their bodies have become the revolutionary figure of this movement. And this is unprecedented.

Why do you think this is happening now? There is obviously the immediate cause of what happened to Mahsa Amini. And revolutions or uprisings are often sparked by things like this. But what are the underlying social causes that led to it happening now? Iran has gone through tough economic times, thanks to a combination of what everyone in the world is going through now, and harsh sanctions that have been placed on the country by the West.

In July of this year, a woman called Sepideh Rashno, who was twenty-eight years old, was arrested soon after footage of her being harassed on a bus over improper clothing was circulated online. She was a writer, and she was an artist. She was among the women who were arrested following the introduction of this new National Hijab and Chastity day, on July 12th, which was put in place by the government. It didn’t exist before July 12th. This is something that Ebrahim Raisi introduced during the very first month of his Presidency, which was spent on this Islamization campaign. And one of the things that he emphasized was enforcing the country’s dress-code law, but with a new list of restrictions.

So these hijab patrols and their presence in the streets and their activities have intensified since Raisi took office. This woman was arrested, and then for about three weeks after that, we actually didn’t know where she was. There was a hashtag that went viral of “Where is Sepideh Rashno?” And then, on July 30th, they brought her on state TV with a tortured face. They made her sit in front of the camera. It was very obvious from her face that she probably hadn’t gotten enough sleep and that she had been under not just psychological torture but also physical torture. It was reported by human-rights groups that she was taken to hospital. After she was taken to custody, she was transferred to hospitals because of internal bleeding. She was put in front of the camera and was made to confess that she was wrong, that she should have observed her hijab.

And that just created fury. So what we see today is this anger that already existed and I think intensified. And for many of those women who lived through the nineteen-eighties, her face and the way that she was dressed in front of the camera was a reminder of the nineteen-eighties, and a reminder of the forced confessions and the tortures of political prisoners and women during those years. So a collective trauma was basically activated and treated.

But this is also a moment where the country has barely come out of more than two years of the pandemic. There have been a lot of economic restrictions because of the sanctions on the country. In 2017 and 2019, there were two protests, but those were more economic. They were in response to dirty water, and they were in response to bread prices. Now eggs have become a luxury item. People can barely afford chicken. And I’m talking about middle-class Iranians. Millions of Iranians already live under the poverty line. And then there were these deep layers of state corruption that also manifested, four months ago, in the sudden fall of this tower in the Khuzestan Metropol. It’s called Metropol tower. Dozens of people were killed. What I’m saying is what we see today, at this moment, is everything coming to a head. Four decades of the economic grievances, the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, the discrimination against women, and then the body of this twenty-two-year-old Kurdish woman suddenly becomes the symbol of all of these layers of oppression.

That’s really interesting about all these things coming together, because my assumption had been that things like what happened to Sepideh Rashno were not particularly new, even if the way it circulated on social media was.

That case was actually new. Of course, since the victory of the Iranian Revolution, very shortly after Khomeini’s arrival, the very first group of protesters who took to the streets were women. They were protesting against the compulsory hijab, basically. The protests were shut down. And let’s not forget, during those revolutionary days and soon after the Revolution, even a lot of so-called liberal and republican figures who then later on were disillusioned by the revolutionary government were also undermining this idea of the compulsory hijab being the central concern, And they were saying, “Let’s not talk about a piece of fabric on the head of women. That’s not the problem. Unity should be our concern.” And then soon after that, when the protests were shut down, women had to wear the hijab. And each of the political parties that took power, including the reformists during the mid-nineteen-nineties, none of them put fighting or abolishing the compulsory hijab as a priority in their agenda.

But what happened was, over time, especially during the Presidency of Khatami, this issue of the compulsory hijab and women’s dress code was a little bit eased during that period, which was 1997 to 2005. After that, during the Green Movement, there were forced confessions on television, but none of them were really focussed on the hijab. They were mostly about things that harmed the legitimacy of the state. But then, with Sepideh Rashno, the government took forced confessions into an entirely new stage, and made clear that the hijab is something that they are not going to compromise on.

The message, very loud and clear, is that this—the hijab—is one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic, and the government is not going to compromise. Sepideh Rashno was not the only one—other women were also brought on state television in the past couple of months to denounce what they had done and to say that they were going to observe hijab. So I think this is part of the plan of the new government, including Ebrahim Raisi, who promised to intensify this Islamization of society, which is very much a reminder of the nineteen-eighties.

The place of the Kurdish minority in Iran has long been a contested issue. To what degree are demands for more freedom for the Kurdish minority a part of this movement, and will the government use that to try and divide the movement?

We cannot and we should not underestimate the significance of the Kurdish movement or the demands of the Kurdish movement in this episode, in this movement. I think one of the most remarkable aspects of what’s happening today is that we see that the difference between, for example, Neda Agha-Soltan and Mahsa Amini is that everybody, when we were talking about the Green Movement, would call it a middle-class movement. And Neda herself was coming from a middle-class family in Tehran. Mahsa Amini comes from a humble background, from a Kurdish border city. She had just got a job, and she was just entering her womanhood and becoming an independent woman. And, suddenly, her life was cut short in the most tragic and brutal way. And I think she represents the lifelong deprivation of not just Kurdish women but the Kurdish people as an ethnic minority in Iran, who have been purposefully and systematically subjected to state oppression and discrimination.

During the nineteen-eighties, again, the Kurdish movement was one of the most vocal and active opposition groups against the Islamic Republic. They were at the forefront. And at the same time, over the past forty-four years, we see that they have been systematically executed and discriminated against. Let’s also not forget that we are talking about religious minorities. They are mostly Sunni, a religious minority in Iran. And there are many other religious minorities. We are also talking about Zoroastrians, we are talking about Jews, and particularly groups such as Bahais that are systematically persecuted, killed, and imprisoned.

We can also see that there are tensions right now on the border of Iraq and Iran. [Iran has bombed Iraqi Kurdistan and accused Kurds of fomenting the current protests.] The invasive and intrusive and aggressive response of the Revolutionary Guard Corps over the past few days is very clear proof of the fact that the Kurdish areas are at the forefront of this movement.

And do you think the government will try to exploit this?

Absolutely, yes. But people in Kurdish areas are not pushing for autonomy. I think that the government is trying to manipulate what is happening right now, saying that the integrity of the state is being threatened. This is not the case. This is a reference that they have used for the past four decades. Kurdish people in Iran are not talking about Kurdish autonomy at the moment. This is about basic human rights. This is about the bodily autonomy of women. This is about ending state oppression against ethnic and religious minority groups. And in fact Kurdish activists have been extremely diligent and very sensitive about not focussing just on the aspirations and the demands of the Kurdish movement. Yes. Let’s face it, this movement has a slogan that originally comes from the Kurdish emancipatory movement. And yes, let’s face it, in the past forty-four years, Kurds have been at the forefront of facing the oppression of the regime.

During every uprising in the past, I would always hear about how reformists were scared of the Kurdish areas suddenly revolting against the state. Because they were aware of the depths of the preparation and suffering of these people. They knew that they have been widely and grossly neglected for decades. And so this fear of revolting has been real. And I think the fact that there is this assumption from pro-government media and the Revolutionary Guard that the Kurdish movement might hijack this protest, and they might take power in the case of the collapse of the government, I don’t think that’s something that the protesters or even the leaders of the Kurdish movement are actually talking about or thinking about.

You talked earlier about the advantages of a leaderless movement, but I assume that at some point the movement will have to have some more leadership, and take on more specific political demands. What do you think those might be?

I think one thing that is really important is that in the past two weeks, a fundamental shift has become very obvious, and it’s something that we can no longer ignore. The world can’t ignore it. The Iranian people inside the country can’t ignore it. And that fundamental shift has been in the ways in which we can imagine, and we can visualize, women’s bodies and hair in public, in the streets. We have witnessed these unforgettable scenes in the past two weeks. There have been women dancing, and making bonfires with their head scarves in the streets. This cannot be taken back, and you cannot reverse this. You cannot go back to two weeks ago anymore. Things have been seen and observed in the streets that cannot be reversed.

And then on Friday, for example, a statement was signed and released by a group of clerics from several seminary schools, who have officially disqualified harmony as a legitimate model of emulation and have said that it’s haram, forbidden in any way, to collaborate with this government. And I think this will definitely lead to further a nationwide strike that already has started. A large number of people in Iran are religious. They are looking up to the seminary schools. And after this statement, I think they will definitely think, O.K., how are we going to move forward if collaborating with this government is against Islam? And here we also see that it is very clear that this movement is not an attack on Islam.

So I think from here onward, there will be a nationwide strike to stop collaborating with the government. And I think that will definitely change the face of this moment. It’s very difficult. I think whoever claims that he or she can tell or foresee the future of what’s going on today in Iran is wrong, and a little bit also deluded. I think we should be very, very careful with making assumptions and judgments at this point. But another thing that I think is really important is that we see a new generation of Iranians between seventeen and thirty years old in the streets, and their values and their norms are entirely different even from those of us who were born in the nineteen-eighties.

We also see a change in gender-related norms and values. These are the concepts that refer to virtue and honor, and traditionally relate to the male protection of females virtues, and the female body. You see today in the streets, these two notions have been completely, entirely reversed. You see that men are actually standing side-by-side women, and they’re protecting them. But they’re protecting them against the oppressive forces of the state. So the heterogeneous norms of the society have changed and have been reversed. Even if they brutally oppress this movement right now, it’ll erupt again. ♦

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