Women without headscarves stroll through Tehran's Tajrish Square in February 2023.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
TEHRAN, Iran – You see it as soon as you land at the airport: posters telling women to keep their headscarves on. They’re everywhere in Iran; in malls, restaurants, billboards above main highways, and even rest stops in between cities. The hijab remains the official law in Iran.
But these days, all around the country, many women are going about their business hair uncovered. It’s a vivid reminder of the public uproar and anti-government protests that erupted after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, was killed in police custody in September. She was allegedly arrested for improper wear of her headscarf.
The government brutally cracked down on those protests, killing hundreds of people and jailing thousands, according to rights groups.
What began as anger at the hijab law grew into a bigger movement as Iranians said they were fed up with the regime’s corruption, economic mismanagement and oppression of its citizens. Now, a visible minority of women in Iran are refusing to wear headscarves, in defiant protest against the government and all of its policies.
In a north Tehran neighborhood, a 63-year-old woman and her daughter said they both decided to stop wearing a headscarf after Amini died. Like many other women who spoke to NPR, they asked not to be identified, fearing government retribution.
The mother said she did it in solidarity with the mothers of the many young protesters who were killed standing up to the regime.
“The only thing that I can actually do at this age is to not have a scarf,” she said. “To have the scarf or to not have the scarf, for me, is not very important. I’m not young to show off my hair, but I’m not wearing it to show that my views are against the government’s views.”
At first, her friends told her not to take it off because of the risks. But slowly, she said, those who didn’t choose to observe the hijab of their own accord, no longer wear it. Recently, she was approached by an older woman on the street who applauded her for her defiance.
“She told me, ‘I want to not wear the hijab myself, but my hair isn’t dyed,'” she said, laughing. “And then I told her my hair is not dyed as well. Just take the hijab off!”
Niloufar, a 24-year-old woman who was walking with a friend, said she never really observed the hijab, even before the protests. Now, she’s hoping that this situation will be the new normal.
“They have to get used to the fact that we women have our own freedoms,” she said. “And just the way that I respect the woman who wears the hijab, and I don’t allow myself to tell her, ‘Why aren’t you taking it off?’ I want that person to respect me and the choices that I’ve made.”
Asked if they had been stopped by anyone trying to enforce the law, Niloufar and her friend shook their heads.
“Not since the protests,” Niloufar said.
The hijab law has typically been enforced by the so-called morality police.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
While most women in Iran still cover their hair – whether by choice or because it’s the law — the defiance of the law by many is a new thing, according to Foad Izadi, a professor at Tehran University, whose views track closely with Iran’s hardline leaders.
“You have as much hijab enforcement in Tehran as you have in New York,” he said.
“The government realized that the way they were enforcing the laws was not effective, and it resulted in a lot of difficulties for the country. And it means you may never go back to the situation we had here five months ago.”
In Iran, the hijab law has typically been enforced by the so-called morality police. They would stop women in the streets, detain them and make them watch what they called a two-hour educational video. There have been reports of harassment and beatings in custody. Authorities have also fined women driving without headscarves, through traffic surveillance systems.
Now, however, there seems to be a pause in typical enforcement tactics. The morality police no longer appear to be operating in the streets. While there are reports of restaurants being fined for allowing women to dine uncovered, women not wearing the hijab told NPR that no one had tried to stop them since last fall.
“I think the government really is putting itself at risk if it chooses to reinforce the hijab law in a very draconian way,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London, adding that there are debates among Iran’s political establishment on how to move forward on the hijab issue.
While there are reports of restaurants being fined for allowing women to dine uncovered, women not wearing the hijab told NPR that no one had tried to stop them since last fall.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
“There are conservatives that have tried to suggest that reform or outreach and bridge building to protesters is important,” Vakil said. “But you also have hardline conservatives who see compromise as an avenue that will invite further protests and challenge.”
In recent years, Iran would ease on hijab enforcement around public holidays. During the previous administration, under the relatively moderate president Hassan Rouhani, more affluent areas in Tehran rarely saw enforcement. However, when Iran’s hardline president Ebrahim Raisi came to power in 2021, things changed.
“The president, who tried to reinforce the hijab, made a very big mistake,” said Haleh Esfandiari, director emerita of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center. “He was not aware of how much women were objecting to not just the hijab but being second-class citizens.”
Women in Iran do not have the same legal protections as men, and are particularly vulnerable when it comes to issues such as marriage, child custody, divorce and even employment.
The recent protests were the biggest threat to Iran’s authoritarian leaders in at least a decade. And according to Esfandiari, the anger that fueled them caught Iran’s leaders by surprise.
Many Muslim women around the world choose to cover their hair for religious or traditional reasons, including in Iran. But in this country, the hijab has also been a contentious political issue for nearly a century.
In the 1930s, women were banned from wearing the headscarf by Reza Shah Pahlavi for about a decade, as he tried to modernize the country at a fast pace. But the ban came as a shock.
“Especially the enforcement of it,” Esfandiari said, “You know, policemen were told to remove the veil by force on the street when women were wearing it.”
In the 1970s, under the rule of his son, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – who came to power after a coup d’état instigated by the U.S. and Britain overthrew the previous democratically-elected government – young women in Iran, especially university students, started wearing the headscarf, in protest.
“A political manifestation against the then government,” Esfandiari said. “It was not necessarily a sign of religiosity.”
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks to women in Tehran who are choosing to not wear headscarves.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
In 1979, women played a major role during the Islamic revolution. They were out on the streets, campaigning for regime change. Conservatives, seculars and leftists were on the same side — and many wore a headscarf in solidarity with the revolutionary movement. They believed that when the Islamic republic was finally created, they could go back to having the choice.
But once the Islamic republic came to power, it became quickly apparent that things would be different. The male leaders used the hijab to try to control women and push them back into their homes, according to Esfandiari.
“But no, women were pushing back. Women wanted to continue with their education. Women wanted to be in managerial positions. Women wanted to be free on the street. Women wanted total equality,” she said.
Now, 40 years after the Islamic republic made it a law in 1983, the hijab has become a powerful symbol with different meanings. The regime sees it representing its own legitimacy.
“For the government to move away from the enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic law would be an acknowledgement by the political establishment that their legitimacy has waned, if not, is bankrupt,” said Sanam Vakil of Chatham House.
Meanwhile, those who oppose the government see the hijab law as an emblem of a legal system that views women as second-class citizens.
“The hijab is like a red line for the Islamic republic,” said the 63-year-old woman in north Tehran. “And it’s their means to make us frightened.”
The defiance of the law has become too widespread to be controlled easily, and according to Esfandiari, the issue transcends political and social boundaries. Women in chadors – a long cloak typically worn by conservatives in Iran – can be seen walking with their daughters who are not wearing headscarves. Even supporters of the regime say they disagree with the law.
“It’s not right to enforce the hijab, because it is a belief,” said one 40-year-old woman at a recent pro-revolution rally in Tehran.
Despite the brutal crackdown on protests, resentment at the government continues to simmer. The issue has moved beyond the hijab, said Esfandiari, and it is no longer enough for the government to find a solution for it.
“Something fundamentally has changed in Iran,” she said. “A few reforms here and there isn’t going to be enough. I mean, these people you saw in the streets, they want regime change. That’s what they want.”
You hear that very sentiment on the streets of Tehran, where chants of “death to the dictator” can still be heard from apartment windows at night.
It's not clear exactly what this moment will lead to for women in Iran.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
“I don’t want you to think that now that we don’t have the hijab, there is freedom,” said the 63-year-old woman who was walking with her daughter.
“No, there isn’t freedom. This is just our way of showing our dissent,” she said, adding that Iran would never go back to how it was before Mahsa Amini was killed.
“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.”
And the government, she said, can no longer hide behind the headscarf.
Marjan Yazdi is a photojournalist based in Yazd, Iran. You can see more of her work on her website marjanyazdi.com or on instagram @marjankyazdi.
Photos edited by Ben de la Cruz/NPR.
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Tags: Religion, Politics