By Thomas Erdbrink
January 29, 2018
Climbing atop a five-foot-tall utility box in one of Tehran’s busiest squares on Monday, an Iranian woman removed her head scarf, tied it to a stick and waved it for all to see.
It was no small feat in Iran, where women can be arrested for publicly flouting the Islamic requirement that they cover their hair.
But there she stood, her curly hair blowing in the breeze. No one protested. In fact, she was applauded by many people. Taxi drivers and older women took her picture. The police, who maintain a booth in the square, either did not see her or decided not to intervene.
“My hands were trembling, the 28-year-old said, asking not to be named out of fear of arrest. “I was anxious and feeling powerful at the same time. And proud, I felt proud.”
She was not alone. On Monday several other women, a total of six, according to social media accounts, made the same symbolic gesture: taking off their head scarves in public and waving them on a stick, emulating a young woman who climbed on the same sort of utility box on Dec. 27 and was subsequently arrested. Activists say she has since been released, but she still has not resurfaced in public.
At least one of the women protesting on Monday was arrested by the police, a shopkeeper who witnessed the arrest said.
The protests, still small in number, are nevertheless significant as a rare public sign that dissatisfaction with certain Islamic laws governing personal conduct may have reached a boiling point. As the 28-year-old woman said, “I took my scarf off because I’m tired of our government telling me what to do with my body.”
And some said this might just be the beginning. “My guess is that more of these protests will follow,” said Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer and human rights activist. “It’s obvious that some women want to decide for themselves what to wear.”
That remains to be seen, but the protests have already gained enough attention to provoke angry reactions in some quarters.
“These protests are done by instigators, saboteurs and vandalists and anarchists,” said one critic, Kazem Anbarlooie, the editor in chief of the hard-line newspaper Resalat. “Recently our enemies were communists and liberals, now Americans are provoking masochists against us.”
The first protest in December took place on a Wednesday and seemed connected to the White Wednesday campaign, an initiative by Masih Alinejad, an exiled Iranian journalist and activist living in the United States. Ms. Alinejad has reached out to Iranian women on Persian-language satellite television and through social media, and via a website she runs called My Stealthy Freedom. On the website, women post images of themselves without head scarves, demanding an end to the compulsory head scarf law.
During Monday’s protests some women waved white scarves, the symbol of Mrs. Alinejad’s campaign.
Hard-liners say that foreign intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, have been nurturing protests in Iran, like those that broke out in 80 cities at the end of last year. Nearly 4,000 people were arrested and 25 died, according to official statistics. The hard-liners have not provided proof to back up their claims.
The Islamic head scarf, or hijab, is seen by Iranian ideologues as a pillar of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The law regarding the scarf has been enforced since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and a head scarf is obligatory for every woman in the country, even tourists and visiting foreign dignitaries.
While discriminatory Islamic divorce and inheritance laws pose problems for individual women, the head scarf is a highly public symbol of a set of personal rules imposed by Iran’s clerical leaders, who decide what people can wear, what music they can listen to and what television programs and movies they get to see. Men are also the subject of clothing laws: They are forbidden to wear shorts in public.
During the past decade, influenced by the rise of the internet, satellite television and cheap foreign travel, many Iranians have grown deeply resentful of rules that they can see for themselves are out of step with most of the rest of the world. Many have become relatively secular and feel increasingly unwelcome in the fixed-in-stone state version of Shiite Islam, and many have taken to flouting the rules whenever and wherever they feel free enough to do so.
In past years, the morality police zealously enforced the rules, arresting women and men who violated them. But under the current president, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, those officers have largely been taken off the streets.
Their removal was a gesture to a radically changed society, but it was also a recognition that there were not enough enforcers available to control a society that resents and rejects the rules. Women without head scarves can be seen everywhere in Tehran, in their cars, in shopping centres and even on the street, but always with the scarves draped over their shoulders, as if they have only just slipped off.
But the public protests are different because they are a symbolic rejection of authority and a statement that some young women are apparently ready to emulate. “I was working when I saw the image of another woman protesting on social media,” the 28-year-old said in a telephone interview. She said she informed some friends and co-workers about her intentions.
“If a lot of people do this, it will have more influence, I thought, so I went,” she said. At Ferdowsi Square, one of the busiest places in Tehran, she used a tree branch to clamber on top of the utility box next to a traffic light.
“‘Good going,’ ” she said many people shouted. “After five or six minutes people urged me to step down.” They did not have a problem with her protest, she said, but they had what they wanted. “They had taken enough pictures to put on social media,” she said.