Compulsory Hijab in Iran: There Is No Room for Appeasement

Unfortunately, Iranian women's deprivation of one of their primary rights -- the right to wear what they want in public -- has yet to garner attention in the era of 'Islamophobia.'
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As the 1979 revolution was reaching a climax, for those who were euphoric over its possible triumph, few had imagined worrying about Ayatollah Khomeini's implementation of compulsory hijab. "Bringing down the tyrant!," they chanted. This was the rallying cry from a wide spectrum of Iranian citizens.

It is commonly assumed that those involved in the Revolution were a bunch of Islamists whose sole desire was guarding religious values and implementing Islamic ordinances. On the contrary, the Iranian Revolution was a culmination of diverse political ideologies and principles. The reason that Islamists seized power is still a hot subject for both academic and nonacademic roundtables. However, now is the moment to not focus on causes, but to concentrate on effects.

It is a historical fact that the woman question was not part of the revolutionaries' political agenda. Only a few months after the Revolution, in March 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini decreed mandatory hijab. Many Iranian women, who were also active in the Revolution, from diverse social classes, poured into the street protesting what soon became the law of the land. Their male comrades, however, didn't offer them enough support; they believed the time was not appropriate. Instead, they reasoned for solidarity with the new government in order to show a united front before their national and international enemies. Consequently, wearing hijab became obligatory, and the lack of it punishable under the law.

This was not the end of the story. Gradually the government's propaganda, policies, and policing of women's hijab increased. Police harassed women in the streets for" bad-hijabi"-- or not observing a proper hijab, became a routine occurrence. From the Iranian government's perspective, the restrictions were not so effective. Day by day, women were letting more hair fall out of their headscarves; they were dressing in public with tighter manteau (overcoats) and pants -- all the while aware that they might become the prey of Iran's morality police. By these simple, yet consistent acts of defiance, women were disobeying a law they found both unfair and discriminatory. There was no direct political agenda or modus operandi connecting these women. It was a social and political act of defiance, culminating in a nebulous and dynamic movement against compulsory hijab.

Since 1979, the Iranian government has made hijab an emblem of its religious and political identity. Iranian women covered by black chadors became the visual symbol of not only the Islamic government but also as a representation of the ideal type of Iranian women. The government was successful in disseminating distorted images of Iranian women's lifestyles by denying the existence of many others who did not wear chadors or believe in hijab. This state representation has been highly effective. Even today, the chador and hijab are the most common markers of Iranian women broadcast in both Western media and Iran's state-run television, IRIB.

Unfortunately, Iranian women's deprivation of one of their primary rights -- the right to wear what they want in public -- has yet to garner attention in the era of 'Islamophobia.' In progressive circles of civil society, debates on hijab and Muslim women's freedom of expression are typically rationalized by their right to wear a burqa in European countries. A consequence of this is that the Iranian government's policy of compulsory hijab is either supported or ignored by cultural relativist apologists. However, if using the same line of reasoning, Europeans can possibly claim that they, too, are preserving European culture by denying Muslim women their right to freedom of expression -- meaning, wearing the hijab.

Depriving women of their basic rights is not a new subject. But when these rights are ignored by social activists in the name of culture or religion we must be alarmed. Now is the time to stop justifying mandatory hijab in the name of religion, nation, country, or culture. It is time to remind ourselves, as women and human rights activists, that when it comes to women's rights, there is no room for appeasement.

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