Young women in Iran are part of a new generation of activists as they protest their country’s restrictive dress code. Following the example of one woman who became a symbol of popular protest in December, Iranian women now are standing on telecoms boxes and removing their headscarves.
At least six images of women removing their hijabs in public appeared across social media Monday. A hashtag about women’s role in social change, roughly translating to #GirlsofRevolutionStreet, was also trending on Iranian Twitter.
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The images are part of the social movement called White Wednesdays, in which women post pictures of themselves on social media wearing white headscarves or pieces of white clothing in protest. Some Iran experts said that the protests have succeeded in pressuring the government to relax its enforcement of the mandatory hijab. In late December, the government announced that women in the Iranian capital of Tehran would no longer be arrested if caught with their heads uncovered.
“That directive was an important step forward, but more or less reflected the reality on the ground in the capital where hijab has been increasingly loosely adhered to in some quarters,” Gissou Nia, a human rights lawyer based in Las Angeles and focused on Iran, told Newsweek.
Women who violate the country’s dress code will be sent to classes on Islamic values instead of being arrested. While some critics have said that White Wednesday protests could cause authorities to tighten the rules again, Nia argues that sustained activism forced authorities to relax dress code laws in the first place.
“It is only because of persistent, consistent and visible challenges to these laws that any gains have been and will be made,” Nia said.
The woman from the iconic protest image that activists have been imitating was reportedly freed on Monday after spending about a month in jail. Rights groups believe that she was released in order to quell growing White Wednesday protests. Yet a second woman, identified by human rights groups as Narges Hosseini, was arrested on Monday for participating in the protest.
“Civil disobedience is costly and women might face arrest and jail time for removing their scarves in public, but women courageously show defiance, indicating that the new generation finds no benefit in staying silent,” Iran analyst Omid Memarian told Newsweek.
Protests against the compulsory headscarf have sprung up sporadically since 1983, when Iran’s parliament passed a law that made wearing hijab mandatory. Some say the movement’s origins trace back to before the Iranian revolution and the overthrowing of the Shah in 1979, who fled the country in 1979 after nearly four decades in power. Two weeks later, the spiritual leader of the Islamic revolution, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returned from exile and took control of Iran. Throughout these periods of political turmoil, experts say Iranian women have attempted to maintain some control over the way they dress.
“This should be seen as part of a larger struggle of Iranian women for equality and to have control over their own bodies, and can even be traced back to women’s resistance of forced unveiling during the reign of Reza Shah,” said Sussan Tahmasebi, an Iranian women’s rights activist.
“In recent decades, women have resisted the concept of forced veiling, and this can be seen in the way they have reshaped the concept of ‘proper veiling.’ It demonstrates that they have never given into the state’s notion of how they should dress, even if they could not fully unveil,” Tahmasebi continued.