Back in 1979, all women in Iran were required by law to cover their hair, arms, and legs in public.
The Ayatollah Khomeini had just assumed power as the Supreme Leader of the newly formed Islamic Republic — and more than 100,000 women, along with their male allies, weren’t happy about the new rule. They took to the streets of Tehran to protest the compulsory decree.
Now, nearly 40 years later, their fight continues.
On Dec. 27, a video of an Iranian woman protesting the mandatory dress code went viral. Dubbed “the girl of Enghelab street,” stood on top of a pillar box in Tehran’s busiest street, took off her white headscarf, tied it to a stick, and waved it back and forth as cars passed by.
Original illustration by Ashely Lukashevsky.
The woman’s protest became a part of the “White Wednesday” initiative.
The campaign, launched last summer by Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, challenges Iran's rule by asking women to publicly wave white headscarves, the color of the campaign, while bare-headed.
According to Iranian social media accounts, six women have taken part so far. Two protesters were arrested for participating, including the woman in the Dec. 27 viral video, who was later released from custody.
This time, the protests are taking place in the "real world" — with real-world consequences and messy debates.
To some, these are brave acts of resistance because women in Iran can face hefty fines or imprisonment for failure to comply with its mandatory dress code. To others, it’s a lot more complicated.
I talked to nine Iranian women — some still in Iran — about their thoughts on the White Wednesday campaign and compulsory hijab to get their unfiltered thoughts about how they’re being portrayed in media.
1. Masih Alinejad, 41, founder of #WhiteWednesdays and #MyStealthyFreedom
"Iranian culture isn’t as simple [or] black and white as Westerners see. It’s a mixed culture of many minorities, religious and [irreligious] people. Hijab is not our so-called ‘culture.’ It’s a part of a culture that also dances and doesn’t practice any religion [...] 40 years ago, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Bahai and Jewish believers, and men and women co-existed and had respect for people’s individuals choices in life."
"We are not fighting against a piece of cloth. We are fighting for our dignity."
"[White Wednesday] is peaceful civil disobedience and thanks to to social media, Iranian women now have a hub to find each other to organize and give support. What Iranian women are doing now is no different than what the women’s suffrage movement was in any other country in the world."
2. Misha Zand, 38, consultant and freelance writer
Image by Misha Zand
"I have difficulties assessing the scope of [these] veiled protests. At this point, it seems to be a bigger issue in the foreign media and social media than in Tehran’s streets. For instance, Radio Free Europe actually wrote: 'At least three more women ditched their head scarves again on January 30' and called the piece 'Uncovered "Girl From Enghelab Street" Picks Up Steam In Iran,' which to me is problematic. Three women is not a 'protest picking up steam.' And, I am not sure what these types of reporting are good for."
"Earlier today, I tried to read all the posts attached to the Persian hashtag and most of them were in English. Few of them were in Persian. We need more facts to conclude that this campaign is picking up in Iran."
3. Zahra Kiani, 33, lives in Esfahan
Image by Zahra Kiani
"Women's rights are an issue everywhere in the world and in Iran to a larger extent and certainly all social movements need to incorporate women’s rights in them. But my sense is that this kind of protest against mandatory [hijab] at this stage is somewhat misguided."
"I think restrictions on [hijab] is something that is going to be laxed in the next couple of years because of the high social and international pressures, just like it has gradually been laxed over the last 30 years. Even Saudi Arabia has now removed some of the obvious restrictions on women’s activities that have been in international spotlight, such as driving and going to stadiums, but do women really have better rights in Saudi Arabia now? I don’t think so."
4. Atoosa Moinzadeh, 24, journalist
"It should be noted that these these women are truly putting their bodies on the line. These women are fighting for their autonomy and that shouldn't be diminished at all. However, the media needs to make sure to contextualize this against the broader history of women's issues in Iran, and sadly, that has not been the case historically with western protest coverage. If history has shown us, miniskirts and mod haircuts don’t symbolize freedom, if you look back to the way that people in rural areas were suffering under the Shah and the human rights abuses he committed under his authoritarian regime. This narrative evokes a type of whitewashing of the women's movement in Iran. It’s also important to note that the mandatory hijab is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what women and other marginalized identities are fighting for there."
5. Khadija*, 26, playwright and activist
*This source requested anonymity and is not pictured.
"It is against Islam to force women to wear the hijab because women should wear it for the sake of Allah and not for the sake of the police. A woman’s intention is not there if she is forced to wear it. It goes against Prophet Muhammad’s Hadith. Also, the Iranian government is not merciful, so is it even Islamic? After all, God is the 'Most Merciful' and 'Most Compassionate.'"
6. Sara S.G., 30, graduate student
Image via Sara S.G.
"The issue of women's rights like everywhere else is first and foremost cultural — and secondly legal. In Iran, the legal obstacles are larger than many other places, but they are not the entire story. On the cultural front, there has been a lot of improvements in the past 40 years. Since the [1979 Islamic] revolution, the overall culture has definitely improved."
"This change needs to be recognized. In western media, Iran is often portrayed as a static society and Iranian state as an absolute dictatorship, which then justifies the narrative that women need the West to liberate them from 'the evil mullahs.'"
"It's what we heard so much about Afghanistan, but what did the U.S. bring to Afghan women other than a never-ending war? This narrative undermines the agency of Iranian women and Iranian people generally."
7. Soraya Sebghati, 23, musician
Image via Soraya Sebghati
"I think for Iranian women, the White Wednesday movement is a really positive thing. Covering ones' hairline and body and (not) wearing makeup should be a choice for people to have; it shouldn't be forced on an entire country. It absolutely spreads dangerous ideas about femininity, sexuality, and shame."
"However, the neoliberal perspective on the hijab and the Middle East in general upsets me. We shouldn't strive to eliminate the hijab altogether — in my opinion, that's an issue that only Muslim people should discuss. As a person who isn't religious at all, I believe it's important to respect those who wear religious headcoverings of their own accord."
"You should have the full reign to choose between a bikini and a burkini, as long as it's your choice."
8. Anna Bas, 39, architect
Image via Anna Bas.
"I would like for the media to amplify the voices of millions of Iranian women. All these women face punishment for their objection to compulsory hijab. They are so brave."
"If there’s one thing I want Americans to understand, it’s this: Women in my country are not vulnerable victims. We are fighting for our basic rights, but we just need support and for our voices to be heard."
While it’s important to highlight their efforts, there’s a tendency for Western media to turn photos of rebellious Iranian women into a not-entirely accurate reflection of a dark regime.
For example, resurfaced photos of bare-headed Iranian women in the 1960s donning miniskirts — like in Business Insider and the Daily Mail — are often fetishized and used to symbolize a democratic and free Iran.
But in reality, at the time, Iran was ruled by an authoritarian regime since 1941 under Shah Reza Pahlavi that clamped down on dissent and suppressed political freedoms to appease the western governments that backed it. For instance, when Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s oil supply, to the dismay of the U.K. and the U.S., the 1953 Western-backed coup's motive for attempting to overthrow the democratically elected leader was to strengthen Pahlavi's monarchial power.
Pahlavi was ousted during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And ever since Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power, western media capitalized on his implementation of the Islamic dress code for women. As tensions between the U.S. and Iran continue to fester, photos of women in long black cloaks, or chadors, were often used as anti-Iran propaganda.
As the national media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting pointed out, one of the most popular examples is this stock photo of an Iranian woman in a chador walking by an anti-American mural. That particular stock photo has resurfaced everywhere as the featured image for numerous articles — often having nothing to do with Iranian women — for The New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, and The Atlantic among many others.
How can we productively support Iranian women challenging oppressive laws — without exploiting their imagery? Amplify their voices here and abroad.
If you appreciated getting the points of view of these Iranian women, it’s time to support them. You can do this by signing petitions that favor freedom of choice, signal boosting their commentary on social media, and supporting Iranian artists who use their craft as a form of empowerment and resistance.
But the first step is simply listening.
It should be noted that, according to Insider Gov, a public website documenting government contracts, White Wednesday campaign leader Masih Alinejad received more than $230,000 in the last three years from the U.S. State Department for her commentary and anti-compulsory hijab activism in Iran.
UPDATE 2/2/2018: A person previously mentioned in this story has been removed.