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A powerful symbol in Iran's recent protests, the hijab has long been contentious

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When I was in Iran on a reporting trip three weeks ago, one thing that struck me was the number of women walking around in public not wearing the mandatory headscarf. We asked why and heard a range of reasons, including wanting to stand in solidarity with Mahsa Amini, the young woman who died in police custody last year after being detained for allegedly violating Iran's strict dress code. We also asked, why does the regime care about this? Here's one answer from a 63-year-old woman we met on the streets of Tehran.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The hijab is like a red line for the Islamic Republic, and it's their means to make us frightened.

KELLY: But why a red line? What does the headscarf mean to the Islamic Republic and its survival? NPR's Fatma Tanis looked into it.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: You see it as soon as you land at the airport - posters telling women to keep their headscarves on. And they're everywhere you go in Iran - malls, restaurants, even rest stops in between cities. The hijab remains official law. But right now, it doesn't appear to be enforced. As women walk around with their hair uncovered, authorities are looking the other way.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: They are waiting to find a solution for it.

TANIS: That's Haleh Esfandiari, director emerita of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center. The recent protests were the biggest threat to Iran's authoritarian leaders in at least a decade. And she says the anger that fueled them caught Iran's leaders by surprise.

ESFANDIARI: Are they going to abolish the veil again? Never. This is one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic. You know, it will never happen. But will they live and let live? You know, when it comes to the hijab, I'm not sure whether they have gone that far.

TANIS: This is not totally new. In recent years, Iran would ease on hijab enforcement during public holidays. During the previous administration, under the relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, more affluent areas saw almost no enforcement. But that changed when the new, hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, came to power.

Sanam Vakil is the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London. And she says now there are debates among Iran's political establishment on how to move forward.

SANAM VAKIL: There are conservatives that have tried to suggest that reform or outreach and bridge-building to protesters is important. But you also have hard-line conservatives who see compromise as an avenue that will invite further protests and challenge. So I think we're in a bit of a waiting game.

TANIS: Usually a religious practice by many Muslim women around the world, the hijab has deep political roots here in Iran and has been a contentious issue for nearly a century. In the 1930s, women were banned from wearing it by the then-shah for about a decade.

ESFANDIARI: That came as a shock, especially the enforcement of it. You know, policemen were told to remove the veil by force on the street when women were wearing it.

TANIS: Later, under a different government in the 1970s, young women in Iran, especially university students, started wearing the headscarf for a different reason.

ESFANDIARI: A political manifestation against the then-government, you know? It was not necessarily a sign of religiosity. No. It was a political protest.

TANIS: Women played a major role during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. They campaigned for regime change. Conservatives, seculars and leftists were on the same side, and many wore a headscarf in solidarity with the revolutionary movement. But once the Islamic Republic came to power, things changed. Esfandiari says the male leaders used the hijab to control women and pushed them back into their homes.

ESFANDIARI: But no, women were pushing back. Women wanted to be free on the street. Women wanted total equality.

TANIS: Now, 40 years after the Islamic Republic made it a law, the hijab has become a powerful symbol with different meanings. The regime sees it representing its own legitimacy, while those who oppose the government see it as an emblem of a legal system that views women as second-class citizens, especially when it comes to matters of divorce, child custody, marriage and even employment. Esfandiari says after the recent protests in Iran, it's not really about the hijab itself anymore, but the survival of the Islamic Republic.

ESFANDIARI: By now, finding a solution for the hijab is not enough. I mean, something fundamentally has changed in Iran. You know, I don't think that if you reform here, there is going to be enough - not at all. I mean, these people you see in the streets, they want regime change. That's what they want.

TANIS: You hear that very sentiment in the streets of Tehran. The 63-year-old woman, who didn't reveal her name out of fear of government retribution, says Iran will never go back to how it was before Mahsa Amini was killed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The government might try, but the society will not ever go back because we have suffered so much, and we have become so brave. People went out into the streets asking about corruption, about inflation, why they can't pay for their rent anymore.

TANIS: And the government, she says, can no longer hide behind the headscarf.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Tehran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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