Iran has now arrested at least 29 women for refusing to wear the hijab, or headscarf. These acts of defiance reflect women’s second-class status in the Islamic Republic, where they face a range of discriminatory laws aimed at reducing their perceived threat to the sexual and religious norms championed by the regime.
On December 27, Vida Movahed, a 31-year-old mother of a 20-month-old daughter, climbed on top of an electricity box on a busy Tehran street and waved her white hijab, prompting authorities to incarcerate her. Photos of her gesture quickly went viral on social media, spurring an international pressure campaign for her release. Tehran eventually freed Movahed on January 28, but her protest inspired other Iranian women to follow her lead.
Iran’s prosecutor general on January 31 described the hijab protests as “an emotional childish act instigated by forces abroad.” All women, said Mohammad Javad Montazeri, “should know that the sacred Islamic law explicitly has recognized the hijab for Muslim woman as necessary based on the holy Quran.” If they lack faith in Islam, he added, they should nonetheless realize “they are required to obey it.”
Montazeri’s attribution of the hijab protests to foreign provocateurs reflects the entrenched ideology of the Islamist regime. In Iran’s view, the hijab aims not merely to curtail male sexual temptation per se. Rather, Tehran also regards the headscarf as a bulwark against the secular worldview of foreign powers, which seek to subvert the regime by discrediting its Islamist creed through the promotion of unbridled sexuality.
In a 2014 speech, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denounced the West for adopting a “materialistic and non-divine epistemology” that considers women solely “a means for satisfying lust.” This perspective, he continued, arises from its misguided commitment to “sexual equality,” which obscures the natural differences between the sexes, thereby leading to women’s objectification and humiliation.
Consequently, Khamenei argued, Tehran’s treatment of women constitutes not subjugation but immunization from “fossilized and pseudo-progressive” Western values that threaten Iran’s spiritual identity. As he put it in a 2013 address, if foreigners ask why Tehran constrains women’s freedom by mandating the hijab, “we should answer, ‘Why do you give them this harmful and threatening freedom?’”
In fact, said Khamanei in a 2012 speech, the hijab offers women true “freedom and identity.” “By ignoring hijab and failing to cover what Allah the Exalted has asked them to cover,” he contended, “women undermine their own dignity and value.” The hijab, he added, is therefore “among the blessings of God” and prevents “permanent and destructive consequences for the country, for society, for ethics and even for policy-making.”
In this context, the hijab protests mark a repudiation of the clerical regime’s view of women and thus its fundamental religious and political legitimacy. This reality explains why Tehran deems the hijab protests such a threat – and why it likely will continue to suppress them through force.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.