An Iranian woman’s public act of defiance against the government’s rules mandating wearing the headscarf last month in Tehran inspired at least a dozen other women to take off their veils in public this week, making waves in Iran and across social media.
A photograph of the woman, reportedly named Vida Movahed, taken in central Tehran on Dec. 27, became an inadvertent icon for a week of raucous anti-government protests that began a day a later in eastern city of Mashhad and spread to towns and cities across the country.
Movahed became famous in Iran as the “girl of Revolution Street,” a main thoroughfare in the capital that runs along the entrance to the University of Tehran. Described in social media accounts as a 31-year-old mother of a toddler, she was jailed and then released, only to be jailed again and released last weekend, according to human rights lawyers in Tehran.
On Monday and Tuesday, photographs and video emerged of numerous women in the Iranian capital emulating Movahed, standing on street sides or atop utility boxes, their heads bared in open defiance of a rule that has been imposed on women since the country’s 1979 revolution. Some men, too, made the gesture in apparent acts of solidarity.
“This is at least as important as the demonstration of one month ago, if not I would say even more important,” said a Tehran social scientist who specializes in women’s issues throughout the country. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by authorities for speaking to international media. “More women are disobeying hijab, especially in cars, sometimes in streets. In the absence of any [opposition] leadership people are acting individually and then when it is supported by others then it will spread all over the country. Women and this movement of disobedience will be a very serious one.”
Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran’s leading human rights lawyers, predicted the movement would continue regardless of authorities’ reaction. “Iranian women have long been tired of contempt, insults, and threats,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I cannot predict the behavior of the government, but I advise it to recognize the right of women to control their bodies and choose their clothes."
Amid rapid social, aesthetic, and technological change, the obligatory headscarf is the most visible and enduring sign of Iran’s Islamic character. It was imposed violently after the Shiite clergy and its followers took over the country nearly 40 years ago. Iranian women, especially in the cities, have long resisted it, pushing the edges of their headscarves back further and further to defy authorities.
Morality enforcers, in recent years incorporated into municipal police, regularly stop women on the streets, fining, harassing, or jailing them for wearing “bad hijab,” a nebulous accusation that could include showing too much ankle or forearm, wearing too much makeup, or simply catching the eye of the resentful, recently urbanized young men and women who make up the regime’s shock troops.
“The protests are a reminder that hijab was forced on many Iranian women right after the revolution,” said Omid Memarian, a New York–based Iranian journalist and commentator. “It was not something they signed up for.”
Men, too, are sometimes harassed for hairstyles or dress deemed Western or offbeat.
Iranian regime moderates last month sought to temper rising anger over the matter by ordering a relaxation of enforcement in Tehran, but harassment continues. In a Jan. 8 speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who has quarreled with hardliners, acknowledged the divide between the regime dominated by white-bearded clerics and their hardline military and paramilitary enforcers and the country’s youth.
"People are right to say that we should look at them, listen to them, and respond to their demands," he said. “Today, the youth's view of the world and life is different from our view.”
Flaunting the Islamic Republic’s rules is risky. The regime is paranoid of any movement that reeks of dissent, and often quickly cracks down, painting opponents as foreign or domestic conspirators against the regime. Some Iran watchers worried the acts of defiance could trigger a backlash, giving hardliners the rhetorical ammunition to counter Rouhani’s attempts to moderate the regime’s domestic policies. But Rouhani has proven fairly adept at exploiting social unrest — including the nationwide protests — to his own ends, arguing to regime oligarchs that refusing to bend to popular will could lead to the demise of the Islamic Republic.
The women’s solitary acts of defiance also make them a tricky security challenge. “It’s very much organic, and a fine grassroots model of civil obedience, and that will make it very hard for hardliners to crush,” said Memarian.
Spooked by the widespread protests over corruption allegations and economic hardships earlier this month, Iranian officials also are treading carefully about crackdowns, worried about provoking a seething public “They don’t know anymore what to do now because of the very widespread corruption among themselves and the great anger of people over their impotence and mismanagement," said the Tehran social scientist. "Anything can become a crisis here.”
By Thursday, Iranian police had begun to take action, announcing that they had arrested 29 women they described as "deceived" for removing their headscarves.
Some Iranians were cautiously optimistic that the protests would bring about change, or at least force discussion of a sensitive topic in the way Harvey Weinstein's alleged abuse of women ignited the #MeToo movement in the West. ”These individual actions can undoubtedly be effective,” said Zahra, a 29-year-old journalist at one of Iran’s largest newspapers.
Iranian women have been bristling against the forced veiling since it was imposed on March 8, 1979. ”Even among religious hardliners, there are people who believe that the policy of hijab enforcement has failed after 40 years,” Miriam Abdi, a Tehran-based activist, told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “The government may arrest a few people, but eventually they can’t do much. The right to choose clothes is the first human right. And women in Iran are deprived of this right.”
Many Iranians inside the country were stunned at how much attention the matter was getting abroad. A search through Persian Telegram channels found far more mentions of the women among media outlets and individuals in the diaspora than in Iran. Some described the media storm as indicative of a Western obsession with Muslim women’s attire above more general domestic concerns over high prices, low wages, corruption, and a broader lack of freedoms.
“It is part of Western fascination with Iranian women and how they dress,” said Mahsa Alimardani, an Internet specialist for the free speech advocacy group Article 19 and a scholar at Oxford. “But I also do think this is something Iranian women are doing very consciously for an audience outside Iran. These women often are doing this up until their picture is taken and shared. But you can’t disassociate it from the fact that this occurring at the same time as wider national protests where people were taking a stand against injustice and corruption throughout the country.”
Nasrin Sotoudeh's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.