Iran’s Women Haven’t Been This Angry in a Generation

By Azadeh Moaveni

TEHRAN — On Monday, the 18th day of Iran’s intense protests against oppressive clerical rule and its numerous failures, schoolgirls with backpacks and black Converse sneakers joined the revolt. They marched down a street in a suburb of Tehran, the capital, waving their school uniform veils in the air. They jeered a male education official off school grounds in the same suburb, chanting the Persian word for lacking honor: “Bisharaf! Bisharaf!” They blocked traffic in the southern city of Shiraz, waving their head scarves in circles. They tore up images of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, hurled the fragments in the air and shrieked with passion, “Death to the dictator!”

The fury and desperation in their chants, and the confident arrival of Iran’s insurgent girls into the dangerous public sphere of protest is exceptional and extraordinary. They are fighting pre-emptively against a future where their bodies will continue to be controlled by the Islamic Republic. Whatever the fate of Iran’s protest movement, now entering its third week, the authorities’ feminist opposition now includes schoolchildren.

The outpouring of anger took the Iranian government off guard when it exploded on Sept. 16 across dozens of cities, in protest of the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. Iran’s morality police detained Ms. Amini for wearing “improper hijab,” though her precise violation of the state’s Islamic dress codes was unclear. In video footage of Ms. Amini in detention, her attire is, by Iranian standards of compliance with the rules, uncontroversial.

But her unremarkable appearance is, in fact, the point. A distinguishing feature of Iranian life in recent years has been the selective enforcement of the hijab laws. The pockets of society that have managed to flourish in spite of the economy’s overall declinehave lived in relative freedom from such restrictions for years, protected by their wealth, exclusive neighborhoods and regime connections. This partly explains the speed at which protests about Ms. Amini’s death accelerated into a wholesale rejection of the Islamic Republic, its leaders and its management of the country. The gap between the freedoms and opportunities enjoyed by the system’s affiliated elite and those of ordinary Iranians has never been so wide — and never have so many people expressed so much anger about it.

This fundamental repudiation of the system is what makes these protests so different from other restive moments in Iran’s recent past: In 1999, students demonstrated against the closing of a reformist newspaper; in 2009, millions marched against an allegedly rigged presidential election, demanding the ascent of different leaders within the system. Today, many despair of any prospect for change and feel a sense of bleak, collective loss.

The singer Shervin Hajipour summarized that pain in his song “Baraye,” or “For.” The lyrics, sewn together from protesters’ tweets and offering reasons for their protests, often wafts from cars and balconies across Tehran now, especially in the evenings:

For my sister, your sister, our sisters

For the renewal of rusted minds

For embarrassed fathers with empty hands

For our longing for an ordinary life

For the students and their future

For this forced paradise

For the bright ones in prisons

For woman, life and freedom

Tehran lies at the base of towering snow-dusted mountains and spreads downward through leafy districts lined with old villas and luxury apartment towers, and outward in an ever-growing sprawl of apartment blocks and the concrete, low-slung suburbs where the poor live. Bright lights of malls filled with jewelry stores and patisseries, commercial skyscrapers and an in-construction triple butterfly tower by Zaha Hadid dominate the skyline. A grand, plane-tree-lined boulevard, modeled after the Champs-Élysées, runs from the foothills through the length of the city. Anywhere you stand, your proximity to the mountains determines the quality of the air you breathe, your view of the city and your place in it.

The morality police scarcely venture into north Tehran, into neighborhoods where families of government officials live in apartment towers with saunas and elevator garages for parking. The sons of the regime’s elite race their Maseratis up and down the area’s tree-lined boulevards. Last winter, I saw a woman in chador (full body covering) driving a matte black Bugatti.

For the wealthy women of north Tehran, the right to be free from the hijab is already a de facto reality. They dine in rooftop restaurants on sushi and mezze bareheaded, their new-season Gucci bags dangling on their seats, served by uncovered waitresses. Last summer, even the bare midriff, once a jolting sight, became commonplace. My son, visiting Iran for the first time two summers ago, assumed being able to remove your head scarf in restaurants was an actual law. For the new elite, it might as well be. As one protester put it to me: “Can you imagine the police picking up a girl at one of those places? Her father probably works for a ministry and would deploy the whole squad to the Afghan border.”

Neither do the morality police impose their rules in Lavasan, a small town outside Tehran and now a playground for soccer players, celebrities and the regime-affiliated wealthy. Numerous Instagram accounts dedicated to showing ordinary Iranians how their overlords live — in their chateaus, gated villa compounds and infinity pools, with their scantily clad, unmolested lifestyles — have exposed the chasm between the rulers and the ruled.

Across the rest of Tehran, in public parks and metro stations, on buses and around terminals — the contact points where Iranians from the poorer southern neighborhoods and outlying low-wage suburbs enter the city and approach its privileged north — the roving white Mitsubishi vans of the morality police prowl. They may not patrol daily, but regularly enough to project their coercive authority and instill the fear that they may always be lurking.

What is “proper” hijab, anyway? It is meant to be a scarf over the head worn with a longish tunic, an outfit that conforms to what nowadays is called “modest fashion.” What the morality police enforce has little objective basis. They arbitrarily flex the power of the state, conveying that they can stop you whenever they want on the pretext that something is wrong on your body. The consequences range from being a nuisance to destroying a life.

When Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner, took office last summer, he became president of an Iran where the hijab had receded as a boondoggle in public life. A country where the sidewalk on Enghelab Street in the city center, the street named after the revolution, was plastered with stickers of women with bee-stung lips, advertising lip fillers. The hopeful imagined that if the hard-liners controlled all the branches of government, they would feel less insecure and behave tolerantly. Instead, in July, Mr. Raisi signaled that he intended to intensify enforcement of hijab rules. In the wake of his decision, morality patrols increased, especially on the metro and buses. Numerous women were arrested for infringements of the conservative dress code. Among them was a young writer, Sepideh Rashno, who was detained and later surfaced on state television making what appeared to be a coerced apology for not complying with proper hijab.

I traveled to Tehran in late September, as I do every few months, to visit family. On one of my first evenings back, I went to buy bread in the neighborhood and understood quickly from the darkened streets (every other street lamp was switched off), deserted sidewalks, broken glass and scorched shrubbery that something terribly violent had just occurred. A couple of indiscreet intelligence agents, with the wrong haircuts and awkward shirts, loitered at a newspaper kiosk. A pair of women wearing chadors and scuffed shoes walked too briskly up and down the street. It felt like a film set, with everyone playing their roles, the saboteurs posing as protesters to torch the area under cover of darkness, the actual inhabitants vanished.

One morning, I met Niloofar, a translator and graphic artist (most Iranians work more than one job these days to get by) in her mid-30s who remembered the ferocity of the full-fledged crackdown in 2009. Two days before we met, she had joined the crowds gathering in Sattarkhan, a neighborhood in central Tehran, which had become one of the capital’s most restive areas. She was heartened by the women in head scarves she saw among the protesters, women who choose to wear hijab by choice but had come out to support a movement against its imposition. “It’s no small thing to come out into the street,” she said. “You risk your life, arrest, injury. It’s like a war out there.”

Niloofar saw the decision of these women to oppose the government as critical, a feature that makes this movement, even if smaller by numbers, broader than anything Iran has experienced since 1979. In turn, protesters are careful to avoid insulting religion, mindful that despite society’s steady shift toward secularism, tolerance for individual freedom in belief is at the very core of their demands. “Islam is one thing, the system is another,” Niloofar said. “Maybe this system has damaged people’s piety most of all. And maybe secularism is the answer to our problems. But no one is saying it’s time to say that yet.”

The evening that Niloofar joined the protests in Sattarkhan, a group of protesters set crates and trash bins alight to create a barrier between them and the police, who fired tear-gas grenades. The noxious smoke filled the streets and seeped into nearby homes. At first Niloofar thought the police had hurled a bomb, so loud was the sound of the tear-gas grenade’s explosion. She felt pinned to the pavement and began to suffocate. She stumbled down an alleyway, where two young activists pulled her into a doorway and helped her recover.

As she recovered, she traded rumors with the protesters who’d helped her: that the security forces are employing adolescent boys and recruits from Iraq because their ranks are so divided and unwilling; that intelligence agents loiter in pharmacies to interrogate people who show up at night to buy first-aid supplies, since protesters are being treated at private homes by doctors; that a satellite television channel is broadcasting instruction on how to make Molotov cocktails. They all agreed that turnout at a rally organized by counterprotesters earlier in the week as a show of support for the government’s crackdown against the protesters, whom the pro-government activists had depicted as Quran-burning thugs, was a flop.

Even the police, by some accounts, are divided and exhausted. The police force itself, distinct from the Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards, is less politically ideological. After dusk on Sept. 27, I watched as policemen across Tehran simply sat down on the sidewalks in a long line of reluctant, exhausted authority. One said he hadn’t slept for four nights and when he went home, he got an earful from his mother: Don’t you dare beat other people’s children. He didn’t want to, anyway. The policemen have sisters, lovers and friends who are on the other side of these clashes in person. For the first time in its history, the Iranian state is staring a challenge in the face, knowing many of its forces’ sympathies lie with the people.

The anger against the state has also been manifesting in a disturbing manner: In Tehran, there has been in recent months street harassment of women in the black chador, the long enveloping shroud worn either out of religious belief or as a sign of loyalty to the system. I heard of several recent instances of women who have had their chadors ripped off, and been hissed at and spat upon. A former senior government official said on television that workers ignore his wife while she tries to do her business at government offices when she wears it. On another evening, the first week of the protests, a relative of mine, along with a young chador-clad woman, were the last two patients at a dentist’s office in an upscale neighborhood in north Tehran. Her cleaning had finished shortly after 7 p.m., but afraid of being harassed by protesters on the way home, she stayed in the clinic until 10 p.m., waiting for a ride from her brother.

For women who lived through the 1979 Islamic revolution, today’s feminist rebellion against the political order evokes memories. My mother-in-law, a historian and retired university professor, reminded me that in the lead-up to the 1979 revolution, women began voluntarily wearing the black chador on university campuses as a sign of their dissent against the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. “The chador was a symbol of the revolution,” she said. “How ironic that now as a sign of protest it should be a rejection of the head scarf.”

One extraordinary form that rejection has taken is young women publicly and ritually cutting their hair at protests, before chanting and riveted crowds. There is something profoundly uneasy about that sight. A few days earlier, in the main square in Kerman, a city about 600 miles from Tehran, a masked young woman sat atop an electrical box and lowered her head to one side, trying to slice off her long hair with shears. It felt like a ritual sacrifice, this self-shearing, in a culture whose poetry has for centuries invoked hair as a metaphor for immemorial beauty, chains of binding love, shrouds of truth. I saw young women in Tehran walking around with their uncovered shorn heads, a beautiful proud wound.

What matters to the protesters beyond the right to dress freely varies by life stage and what discriminatory law or state-enabled patriarchal norm they’re up against. The list of injustices is long: unequal marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance laws; the lack of important protections under new domestic and gender-based violence statutes; unequal access to sports stadiums; employment discrimination; and workplace sexual harassment. I asked a 34-year-old friend who is trying to save up to emigrate to Sweden what mattered most to her. “I’d like to live in a society where when I submit a résumé for a job, I’m not asked to submit a full-length picture of myself and probably expected to sleep with my boss,” she said. To the same question, a 22-year-old told me she wanted to be able to move about in public without any fear or stress.

Since the protests began, the evenings feel as though the city is under some sort of curfew. One evening last week, I walked down a popular street in north Tehran and nearly everything was closed. The security guard at one of the fashionable cafes said the police had ordered them to shut. A couple of smaller places said they’d closed early to give their staff a chance to get home safely. At the juice stands and shopping complexes that were open, nearly all the young women had their head scarves down, as did middle-aged women doing their shopping. What was transfixing, though, was seeing bareheaded women in central parts of the city where such liberties are rarer, on the backs of motorcycles darting down Enghelab Street, at cafes frequented by university students. At an outdoor mall in eastern Tehran, a young woman flounced past a stall selling shawls and head scarves. “Pack up and go, sir. Don’t you know this is all over?” she exclaimed, sweeping her arm past his wares. “Why don’t you buy them and then burn them?” he suggested, smiling.

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Image: Richard Tomkins/Associated Press