Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi supported the Iranian revolution only to have it end her career as a judge. It was a pivotal moment in Iran’s turbulent transition and one she remembers well. Towards the end of that first year, the Khomeinist revolutionaries went after two objectives at once as they consolidated their power: the imposition of mandatory hejab for women, and the sharp curtailment of their rights to participate in society as equal citizens.
One day Ebadi arrived at the Ministry of Justice to congratulate the revolutionary officials who had taken power. But instead of thanking her for standing with the revolution, the provisional minister asked her to cover her hair, “out of respect for the return of our beloved Imam Khomeini.”
In her account of those days, Ebadi writes, “the head-scarf ‘invitation’ was the first warning that this revolution might eat its sisters.” Within days the same authorities demoted her to secretary of the court she had presided over, saying that women were “constantly distracted,” “disorganized” and “unmotivated.” The aim was to control what women could do, the professional heights they could reach, and the state chose a means that women would feel against their skin every single moment they stepped out their front doors: the hejab.
Three decades have passed since then, and the regime’s efforts to impose its religious norms on society through force have scarcely abated. Just last week 195 members of parliament issued a statement urging President Hassan Rouhani to redouble his attention to enforcing Islamic hejab, and warned of the “irremediable implications” of not taking the matter seriously. Parliament’s anxiety surrounding hejab enforcement comes in the wake of a Rouhani speech in which the president directed authorities not to interfere in citizens’ private lives, with his now famous insistence that “you can’t force people to heaven with whips and threats.”
Acts of Resistance
Hardliners have also been infuriated by a social media campaign called “My Stealthy Freedom” that encourages women from across Iran to post pictures of themselves without their headscarves on an enormously popular Facebook page dedicated to that symbolic protest.
Many of this youngest generation of Iranian women may not realize that before the revolution mandated the heajb, thousands of women protested against the imposition. Great crowds gathered in central Tehran, bare-headed and veiled alike, and chanted that “freedom is universal, it's neither Eastern nor Western.” And while young Iranians have been remarkably inventive, transforming the required manteau and headscarf into highly individual fashion, what remains clear is that millions of women still chafe against the very principle of enforced veiling.
In the West, especially among progressive intellectual types, it has become popular to believe that hejab doesn’t matter, that there are more pressing questions to attend to, and that discussing hejab is somehow shallow or tangential. On panels that I’ve sat on from California to Italy, there is always some well-meaning individual who stands up and scolds me—or whatever Muslim woman I happen to be sitting beside—for talking about the hejab. But what Western liberals don’t get is that hejab is never simply about hejab, but about power; a government that imposes mandatory veiling is chiefly interested in controlling its women citizens, and whatever pushback that emerges is an act of resistance to that control.
Sometimes that resistance is not political in the grand sense, but in the American tradition of civil rights disobedience, flouting laws as a means of gaining very basic rights. That is what we see on the shores of the Caspian Sea, where Iranian women who live along the coast persist with the activity of swimming—not in swimsuits, but with layers of clothing clinging to their bodies. As the filmmaker and photographer Javad Montazeri poignantly shows in his film, Hejab as a Weapon of Islamic Iran, for those Iranian women who grow up and live along the Caspian Sea, staying outside the water is intolerable. The women in his film who challenge the regime’s codes by slipping into the sea are showing that they refuse to be controlled, in the most basic way.
The images we see every summer as young women across Iran’s cities fight back against morality police raids also underscore this same point. They wish to wear cooler clothes in the summer heat (Tehran can easily reach 110F, or 40C), but the state refuses to tolerate lighter fabrics and sandaled toes. Instead, the authorities invite state media to come and film the morality police swooping down on city squares, so that the message is displayed across national media: you must do as we say, exactly. Those restrictions may not be enforced at all times, but the anxiety the prospect creates serves its own function.
Men are in Charge, From the Dinner table to the Houses of Parliament
The control is about patriarchy, of course, and traditional gender roles, and the quest to ensure that men remain in charge, from the dinner table to the houses of parliament, despite more women than ever serving as family breadwinners. Thus a woman is a “pearl in a shell,” or in the most recent and unfortunately-phrased hejab propaganda, “a nut,” a being that should not challenge her husband at the dinner table, should not demand equal say over matters of household finance or child-rearing, should not complain at her in-laws’ incessant demands, or in any way upset the balance of the model Islamic family, in which the mother figure is worshipped but ultimately subordinate.
Legally, as we know, the state controls women through a discriminatory legal code that offers women a fraction of the rights male citizens enjoy in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody, and criminal law. A woman learns from the Iranian legal code that her testimony is worth half a man’s, that the domestic violence she might suffer at the hands of her husband has no legal definition, that her children can be taken her from her legally once they reach a proscribed age, that her adultery can be punished with stoning. Of course these are all far more grave realities for women, far more grave than a headscarf and a loose coat, but any dictatorship that wishes to control how its citizens live manages to enact that by sanctioning what they wear.
Control and premarital sex, extramarital sex, lesbian sex, it scarcely matters, the Iranian state wishes to be there under the bedcovers deciding whether what’s transpiring is moral. Some would argue it just wants the view, but what’s clear is that the state wants to govern how and when women have sex. There is no notion of "consensual" sexual relations. Adultery is criminalized, and young women who sleep with boyfriends before marriage can be lashed.
None of this is to say that the Iranian state doesn’t wish to also control men, as it most certainly does. But the bid to control women operates in a different psychological space, within the honor culture ethic that holds that whatever a woman does reflects on her kin group; the loss of her honor is a stain that everyone must bear. This obsession with namoos and sharm, honor and shame, elevated to the level of law, places the Islamic Republic on a peculiar path. It is the uber-patriarch, wishing to control all of its women, ensuring they do not embarrass the state, which claims before itself and the world to be divine in origin, an Islamic Republic that produces model Islamic citizens.
This overarching agenda of legal, cultural, and physical control is distilled into dress and the notion of hejab as the only honorable mode of dress. Interestingly the state even feels the need to persuade Iranians that other non-Islamic societies share its devotion to hejab, and by extension, to Islamic mores. That’s why Iran has even been known to doctor Hollywood films before distribution, as the scene in the film Death Race shown in Montazeri’s film, where the censors put a black wrap dress on Natalie Martinez and a floor-length fairy skirt on the animated Disney Tinkerbell. For those who are being controlled, witnessing the freedom of others is naturally painful, and this is something even the state understands.
In the minds of the men who run the Islamic Republic, a bare head is a gateway appearance, the first step in a sequence of stages (like the progression, in substance abuse theory, from cigarettes to cocaine) that will inevitably lead to naked women running south down Tehran’s Vali Asr Avenue. That is why the hejab, to them, is always much more than just the hejab. It is everything, the symbol of their virtue, their most cherished weapon of control, the thing they must impose in order to impose everything else.