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The Protests Against Mandatory Hijab In Iran And The Future Of The Iranian Regime

The aftermath of a death of a young Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini in Iran last month, while in the custody of the country’s ‘morality police’ formally known in Farsi as Gasht e Irshad or Guidance Patrols, was marked by protests in the country almost every day.  Amini had been detained as her hijab or headscarf was not covering her hair properly which was a violation of the codes of morality enforced by the Islamic theocratic government of Iran. According to these strict rules, women are supposed to wear loose-fitted clothes and cover their hair completely. More than one hundred people, including children, who took part in the protests were killed by Iranian security forces who used batons, tear gas and even live ammunition in some cases. During the protests, women burned their hijabs and cut their hair in public in large numbers, which was unprecedented even considering the recurrent protests that have taken place in Iran in the last few years. They also shouted slogans such as ‘death to the dictator’ referring to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. A near total internet blackout has also been reported. The protests first began during Amini’s funeral at her homeplace Saghiz, a city in Iran’s Kurdistan province in the west and it then quickly spread to other Kurdish cities. Later, female activists organised a protest in the capital Tehran, which continued and spread to other parts of the country. These are not the first protests against mandatory hijab in Iran.

In the period following the Iranian Revolution, hints on a crackdown on women’s dress prompted one of the first protests of the post-revolutionary period, when thousands of women protested in the streets in Tehran in March 1979 against the imposition of headscarves. While the protest could not prevent the imposition of the strict dress code in Iran, women in Iran have used ingenious ways of defying the code by wearing clothes with colourful patterns and figure-hugging dresses along with the hijab to assert their individuality. In 2014, an Iranian journalist, Masih Alinejad, who fled Iran after the 2009 pro-democracy protests, initiated a Facebook campaign called ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ encouraging Iranians to post photos of themselves without the hijab which had a huge response from Iranians. In 2017, Alinejad began a hashtag campaign known as the White Wednesday movement, encouraging men and women to wear white veils, scarves or bracelets on Wednesdays to protest laws requiring mandatory hijab. The campaign was addressed to women who willingly wear the veil, but who remain opposed to the idea of imposing it on others. Many veiled women in Iran also find the compulsory imposition of the veil to be an insult. Alinejad has also criticised foreign female dignitaries who have worn the headscarf on official visits to Iran. At the end of 2017, there were protests by women against the hijab inspired by Alinejad’s White Wednesday campaign. During these protests, known as the Girls of Enghelab (Revolution) Street, women publicly removed their hijabs in protest. These protests continued in 2018 and many of the women protestors were arrested. 

What is different about the current protests are that while they are led by women there is now widespread participation of people from all walks of life in Iranian society. These include university students, schoolgirls, merchants and shoppers of Tehran’s bazaar, athletes, artists and businesses. The widespread nature of the protests is proved by the fact that women in conservative cities like Mashhad and Qom have come out protesting which was not the case in the earlier protests against the hijab which were mostly confined to Tehran and consisted of middle-class women. Even the lower classes, considered as the social base of the Iranian theocratic regime, have joined the protests. There is also cross-ethnic solidarity among the protestors. The protests have spread to all the major cities of Iran and are a challenge to the political authorities. Most people are responding to the present protests as they are shocked with the violence unleashed by the government against women. For sure, the mandatory implementation of hijab is not the only issue that is causing discontent in Iranian society. 

The number of protests against the Iranian government over various issues have increased in recent years. The grievances include rising gas prices, low-quality water, removal of bread subsidies, corruption, weakened social services and welfare along with political issues such as government repression and less choice in electoral candidates. During the protests of 2019 over gasoline prices, over 1,500 people were killed making it the bloodiest protest in the history of the Islamic Republic. What does this mean for the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Ayatollah Khamenei is eighty-three years old and Iran faces an imminent succession to his position in the near future. A large number of people previously supported the reformist political parties in the Iranian political system in the hope that the system could be changed from within. But those hopes did not completely materialise as the hardliners who actually controlled the system from the top managed to prevent the changes advocated by the reformists and finally prevented the latter’s participation in the political system as during the presidential elections of 2021 when Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner, became the president of Iran. In the meantime, the hard-line elite paramilitary force of the Islamic Republic, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), have become powerful in Iranian politics. Their importance has also increased as they have a vital role in protecting the theocracy within the country and increasing Iran’s influence in the wider West Asian region. It has come to a stage where they have begun to rival the influence of the Shia religious clergy involved in politics. The IRGC have attained more informal power than the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the Supreme Leader and consists completely of clerics, to choose the next Supreme Leader. While Iran might be successful in putting down the current protests, the future of the regime looks increasingly bleak as the IRGC might not command the same kind of respect and allegiance that the politically-active Shia religious clerics had in Iranian society under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, when he was alive. 

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny is Senior Fellow (West Asian & Security Studies) with Centre for Public Policy Research

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