Nicholas Goldberg: Protesters in Iran rally about hijab and more

I once spent a week in a region of South Sudan where almost none of the women covered their breasts, and then just two weeks later I flew to Iran, where women are required by law to cover their hair with hijabs as a sign of modesty .

It was a stark reminder of how different cultures are, laws vary, and rules about women’s behavior are appallingly arbitrary. I began to wonder why, in the West, we think that our own standards of modesty are more appropriate than others’.

For a while after that trip I felt that hijab rules such as I had seen enforced in Iran were no more outrageous or illogical than our own cover-up rules on main streets and public beaches.

It took me a while to realize I had completely missed the point.

Stipple style portrait illustration by Nicholas Goldberg

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.

Of course, it’s puritanical, paternalistic, and sexist when a government tells women how to dress—in the US, the Middle East, or anywhere else. But in Iran, hijab laws are about more than just hijab, and protests against hijab rules are a protest against something much broader.

With the current unrest, which has been going on for three months, the hijab – the causing obligation Hijab, that is, should be seen at least in part as a proxy, a tangible symbol of all sorts of societal discontent, including a widespread lack of liberty, the government’s assault on individuality and bodily integrity, the overstretching of religion, self-denial determination.

The protests were certain sparked by the country’s outrageous headscarf laws – and particularly the horrific death in mid-September of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody after being arrested in Tehran for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

But in the months since Amini’s death, the protests have grown and spread, becoming a much more general howl of anti-government discontent. Around 18,000 people were arrested during protests in numerous cities. Human rights organizations count more than 400 people killed by Iranian security forces.

Two protesters were executed this month. One was accused of stabbing two members of a paramilitary force; He was bound hand and foot, with a black sack over his head and hung from a construction crane. Both executions lacked due process and may have been based on coerced confessions.

Up to a dozen other protesters are on death row. Lawmakers are urging no leniency, saying chaos must not be tolerated, though the government also appears to be carefully weighing how severely it can afford to be tough. Authorities have accused foreign governments of fomenting the unrest.

Although the uprising began over headscarves, protesters are now loudly shouting anti-regime slogans and anti-clerical chants. They burn hijabs, but they also burn pictures of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and shout “Death to the dictator.” The protests reflect the growing rift between the people and the government. “Woman, Life, Freedom” isn’t just about women’s issues – it’s also about censorship and freedom, and is an expression of the unhappiness of alienated young people as living standards fall and economic ills increase.

The revolt may be crushed or fizzle out, as previous uprisings in 2009, 2017 and 2019 did. But it is clear that minor changes to headscarf rules will not satisfy protesters’ grievances, at least not for long.

The sclerotic government of Khamenei, an 83-year-old ayatollah who hasn’t presented a clear succession or reform plan, had better watch out.

Why and how did the hijab become such a powerful symbol of such a powerful uprising? Partly it’s Amini’s death, but it’s also because the headscarf is such a blunt and unsubtle reflection of the regime’s determination to control its citizens.

The hijab laws reflect the bizarre obsession of the theocratic leadership with chastity and purity and the micromanagement of male and female sexual behavior. They are justified by the religious authorities that women should not become a sexual distraction for men.

Many Muslim women wear hijab voluntarily. That is of course your right. But Iran is one of very few countries that requires it All Women must cover their heads in public. Some countries have lifted or relaxed their headscarf requirement.

The Hijab Wars in Iran date back at least to 1936, when then-leader Reza Shah Pahlavi banned the wearing of headscarves in certain public places. Even then, the hijab—or rather, the lack thereof—was a substitute for “modernization” and “Westernization.” His decree, which lasted only a few years, outraged conservative clergymen as well as many traditionally religious Iranians. (During this period, some women reportedly had headscarves physically ripped from their heads.)

In the 1970s, in the years leading up to the Iranian Revolution, wearing a headscarf became a sign of opposition to the monarchy.

Then, in a turnaround after the 1979 revolution, thousands of women took to the streets to oppose mandatory headscarf rules in what were the first protests against the new regime.

The hijab has sometimes been downplayed as the least of women’s concerns in a country that often requires them to have a man’s authorization to travel and where inheritance and marriage laws generally favor men.

But as the protests enter their fourth month, the hijab has once again demonstrated its symbolic – and substantive – power.

On Wednesday, the United Nations voted to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women at all costs. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan condemned the executions and other Iranian “atrocities”. Economic sanctions have been tightened.

Ultimately, however, the Iranian people – and the depth of their anger and their willingness to continue fighting the state – will determine how far this goes.

@Nick_Goldberg Nicholas Goldberg: Protesters in Iran rally about hijab and more

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