Following a year in which women’s rights protests made headlines worldwide - including in Iran, where women’s struggles were symbolised by the resurgence of protests against the mandatory use of hijab - CIVICUS speaks to Jasmin Ramsey, communications director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). Based in New York, CHRI is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit civil society organisation (CSO) of journalists, researchers and human rights advocates who collaborate with an extensive team of independent investigators, civil society activists and human rights defenders inside Iran, which allows CHRI to report on and document real-time, on-the-ground human rights conditions in Iran. CHRI also advocates with governments and international organisations and partners with activists around the world to keep them informed about the state of human rights in Iran and hold the Iranian government to account on its international obligations.
What were the frustrations that provoked the 2018 anti-hijab protests in Iran?
Women in Iran have been fighting for their rights since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini, the country’s first supreme leader, took power from the ousted monarchy that year, the hijab was gradually enforced on women until it became law. For the past 40 years, women in Iran have not been allowed in public without covering most of their bodies and hair. If a woman is caught without a veil, she could be subject to various forms of punishment. She could be shamed in public. Men, clerics, sometimes even other women may condemn and insult her for walking around with her hair uncovered. She could also be arrested by various agencies, one of which is the so-called anti-vice or morality police, which is particularly vigilant during summer when it’s very hot and people want to wear less to stay cool. They could pick her up, take her in, charge her and even imprison her.
Shortly after the compulsory hijab was implemented in Iran, many women - thousands by some estimates - went out into the streets to say they did not support it. Some marched arm in arm with their hair flowing freely demanding that the hijab be a choice, not a requirement. So right away we saw that regardless of what the Iranian government said was best for women, many had the courage to say they should be able to control their bodies and the ways they expressed themselves. But the hijab was enforced anyway with great force until the cost of resistance became very high.
But women in Iran haven’t backed down. For the past four decades, they have been challenging this law in various ways, including indirectly. For example, in the beginning of the revolution, women had to observe the hijab strictly, barely showing any skin apart from their face and hands. But as the years passed, while some devout women continued to wear the hijab strictly, many others started pushing it back further and further, so today if you walk through the streets of the capital, Tehran, you can see a lot of hair showing at the front and even a little at the back. Women are also now wearing more form-fitting clothing and showing a little more skin as well. Women wear the hijab very fashionably and try to integrate it within their sense of style; they keep on pushing the envelope. It’s very interesting to look at the ways the hijab has been creatively challenged and reformulated by Iranian women throughout the years. Those who wear the hijab by choice also have their own ways of expressing themselves while keeping themselves covered.
More recently, in 2018, several women - at least 30 - went out into the streets, took off their hijabs in public and waved them either on a stick or with their hands. Some men also did this to support these women. This became the beginning of what appeared to be a new movement - admittedly, a very small one - with women engaging in civil disobedience against the country’s compulsory hijab law, including by walking in the street without a hijab, and then posting pictures of themselves doing so on social media. The vast majority of these women have not shown any desire to make the hijab illegal; instead they are saying it should be a choice. So generally speaking, these are anti-compulsory-hijab protests, not anti-hijab protests.
How did the protests organise, and how did they get their message out? Was social media important?
This particular movement was started by Masih Alinejad, an Iranian activist living in exile in the USA. A few years ago she started a social media campaign, #MyStealthyFreedom, to encourage women in Iran to walk freely without their head covered and submit photos of themselves doing so. It’s not clear whether those women who waved their hijabs in public during the first few months of 2018 and who were arrested for doing so were part of Masih’s campaign. Some said that they were not, and that they did this independently because they wanted to make a statement about something they have believed in all along. Others said they were directing Masih, not the other way around as some judicial officials claimed.
Masih’s Facebook campaign had been around for a few years, and in late December 2017, a photo of one woman, Vida Movahed, waving her white hijab while standing on a utility box in a busy street in Tehran went viral on social media and she and protesters like her came to be known as the Girls of Revolution Street. She did this one day before mass protests broke out in various cities throughout Iran against a range of other issues. It seems that after that photo went viral, several followed her example. It happened over the course of several weeks and months. Social media played a role in spreading that image, and the image compelled others to go out, but I can’t quantify the extent to which social media propelled things forward.
How did the authorities react to the protests?
Women protesters engaging in peaceful acts of civil disobedience came head to head with government hardliners. The security forces - high-ranking officials in the Revolutionary Guards, the Intelligence Ministry and the highest levels of the judiciary - are typically made up of hardline conservatives who tend to support the compulsory hijab for all women. So it is not surprising that protesters were harassed by security agents and some were arrested. At least three were prosecuted and faced suspended prison sentences from three months to two years.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer, was arrested and jailed shortly after representing some of these women as their attorney. When she was defending one of the arrested protesters, a prosecutor lodged a complaint against her. It is extremely easy to make up a complaint: it is enough to say that by defending a client who questioned a state policy a lawyer is engaging in propaganda against the state. She’s now been charged with many other different things and faces several years in prison.
Nasrin’s husband, Reza Khandan, and a fellow activist, Farhad Meysami, were also sentenced to six years in prison. One of the pieces of so-called evidence that was used against them were badges that read ‘I oppose compulsory hijab’, which security agents confiscated when they raided their houses. These men who stood by women fighting for their rights now face six years in prison each and have been banned from leaving the country and going online.
On the other hand, the state is not homogeneous and other sectors have more moderate positions. It is clear that in the long term, faced with such clear-cut civil rights and human rights issues, the state doesn’t really know how to react and is relying on old methods of repression for what it sees as quickly growing problems. It doesn’t have any new solutions to these new issues. Interestingly, there are recent studies commissioned by the government showing that at least half of the Iranian population opposes the compulsory hijab. In one of those studies, conducted by the research group of the current government headed by President Hassan Rouhani, almost half of respondents, women and men, said wearing the hijab should be a choice. A parliamentary group did another study that ultimately offered different scenarios on how to deal with the growing desire for hijab to be a choice, including less strict enforcement. All this indicates that the government is well aware that a significant and increasing part of the population does not stand by this policy, and may be contemplating other options.
Did the protests experience backlash from conservative groups?
There were reports on social media of people, both men and women, publicly reprimanding women who were not wearing a hijab. There was also a lot of backlash from conservative media, which published stories accusing protesters of being directed by outside powers. But these are not independent media; they are affiliated with the security agencies. And one group held a ‘Girls of the Revolution (or Revolutionary Girls) Convention’, its name playing on the anti-compulsory-hijab ‘Girls of Revolution Street’ movement. This convention was held in July 2018 at the Shahid Hemmat religious centre in Tehran, and was attended by ‘martyrs’ families’, according to right-wing state media, and also featured a speech by a conservative speaker by the name of Ali Akbar Raefipour.
Backlash also came from hardliners within the government, both in the executive and the legislative branches, who accused the women of protesting against the hijab law not because they made a choice but because they were being misguided and directed by others. These people refused to acknowledge these women as independent people with minds of their own.
Besides the compulsory hijab, what other key challenges do women face in Iran? Have women led other protests?
There are many issues related to the way the legal system treats women. The law views a woman as having half the value of a man, and this comes through in various ways. To begin with, women cannot be Supreme Leader, they can’t be president, or members of the Guardian Council, or even judges. This issue also manifests in their personal lives. For instance, a married woman can’t travel abroad without her husband’s permission. She doesn’t have equal rights when she files for divorce. She can’t pass on citizenship to her children. Women’s inheritance rights amount to half of those of men: a woman will get half the inheritance that her brother receives. In Iranian law, the testimony of a man is often valued at twice the weight of that of a woman. And when it comes to blood money - the financial compensation provided to next of kin in cases of wrongful death or murder - it’s provided at half the rate for female victims. So women are quite literally considered second-class-citizens.
At the same time, there have been significant improvements since the revolution, and these have happened because women have been fighting for their rights. Getting a divorce isn’t easy for women, but the divorce rate is now higher than it has ever been in Tehran province. We are also now seeing women in big cities who are now able to live alone - not many, but their number is increasing. What we’re also seeing is that women are at the forefront of all the protests, not just those against the compulsory hijab or for women’s rights more generally. For instance, in the face of a government crackdown against lawyers - in an attempt to stop them from defending detainees who had been targeted by the state - female lawyers such as Nasrin Sotoudeh led the peaceful resistance. Nasrin is now in jail for doing so. Women have protested against the state for a variety of reasons, from unemployment to the compulsory hijab. They truly are the thorn in the side of the state, which is possibly why the state goes to such lengths to make sure women stay in their place.
Iranian women are highly educated and are increasingly taking professional positions. But unemployment among women is much higher than among men, and many women are only employed part-time because they are expected to stay at home and take care of the home and kids. Women also make up a much smaller portion of the skilled workforce and the government ranks. There are currently only 17 women in parliament; this means that less than six per cent of parliamentarians are women. Despite President Rouhani’s promise, there are no female ministers in his government. Women are often advisors or assistants, but they never get the high-level jobs.
So improvements are happening, but they are uneven and any assessment of these depends on the points of comparison, over time and also regionally. For example, until recently, women couldn’t drive in Saudi Arabia. But women in Iran can drive - and they not only drive cars, but also buses and even big cargo trucks. Of course, there are just a few women all over Iran doing the truck driving, but they are leading, showing others that it can be done. These women are taking on these jobs because they want greater economic rights, which leads to greater independence. This is all part of an ongoing process of change in Iran that’s occurring because of the current conditions and whether the government wants it to or not.
Much of the change going on is happening on the sidelines rather than on the big stage. And some of these changes are making the Iranian government very nervous. That’s why it’s responding to many of these protests like they’re political threats, because that’s an easy flag to wave. But these are not political issues; these are human issues, issues of human rights. Wearing a hijab is an issue of freedom of expression and religion. Whatever side of it you are on, it should be a choice, plain and simple, say the women protesters in Iran. Protests for labour rights in Iran are not orchestrated by the outside as judicial and security officials claim. They are a reaction to the economic conditions in the country that are driving people onto the streets, say the workers protesting in Iran. No amount of propaganda or spin will get rid of those conditions and the longer the government ignores the roots of the problems, the worse they will get.
Given the restricted space for civil society in Iran, how best can the international community - including international civil society - show support and solidarity for Iranian women activists?
It is important to understand that the women’s movement in Iran is independent and has been around for decades. The women who are leading it from inside Iran and taking all the risks to do so say that change has to be brought about by the Iranian people themselves. Iranian activists do not need my or your guidance. What they need is to have their voice and actions amplified, and the human rights abuses committed against them documented and protested against. That is the kind of work that we do at CHRI: we amplify the voices of activists inside Iran and provide coverage of their issues. There is need for nuanced coverage highlighting not just the bad but also the good things that are going on in Iran, so people get a good understanding of the country and its issues and are able to discuss them in a constructive and intelligent way.
Awareness and constructive advocacy are key. When public officials, businessmen or celebrities engage with Iranian officials, including Iran’s counterparts from other countries and international organisations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), they should bring up human rights issues there that are being protested about by activists and people in the streets. They should ask: why are women being arrested for taking off their hijabs? Why are women kept as political prisoners and denied the right to see their families as punishment for engaging in peaceful protest for their basic rights in prison? Why are people told not to talk to media after their family members have been imprisoned? Why is the right to peaceful protest prosecuted as a national security crime?
If Iran’s international counterparts don’t bring up these issues, they are giving a green light to anyone inside the country engaged in human rights violations to continue violating these rights. Some of Iran’s international counterparts are already speaking up to some degree: the European Parliament, for instance, recently passed a resolution on Iran, and notably on the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh, and the UN Human Rights Council has been doing so for years. There needs to be more much more done though - more discussion, more engagement, more constructive pressure - because the Iranian government is listening. It does care about its international image, and there is a good chance that it will respond to pressure from institutions such as the UN and EU where there are already channels of communication.
It is also important that the people of Iran be allowed and enabled to engage and communicate and experience the world outside their country’s borders in the same ways you and I are able to. The government does not allow internet freedom, so other countries should not implement mechanisms that prevent Iranians from accessing tools and services that enable them to bypass online censorship. Iranian authorities do not want activists and others targeted by the state to travel outside the country, and in some cases even outside their provinces, and speak about their issues, so other countries should not help these state actors by doing the same thing and banning Iranians from entering their countries. Most crucially, Iranians should not be blocked from accessing basic humanitarian goods and medicines due to reinstated sanctions. The entire international community must come together to ensure these channels remain open.
When Iranian people go out into the streets and protest, or protest individually by waving a hijab or calling for the country to revise a policy in a tweet or Facebook post, they are taking major, life-changing risks. Many have been imprisoned for years for doing these things. It is our responsibility, as people who take these rights for granted, to listen, learn and amplify their voices. They are leading the way so we can follow.
Civic space in Iran is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor