Freedom from Torture - Flying the scarf for freedom: writing on Iran and International Women's Day

Flying the scarf for freedom: writing on Iran and International Women's Day

On International Women’s Day, Write to Life member Freshteh reflects upon what the day means in her home country of Iran. Freedom from Torture’s recent report on Iran offers alarming insight into the brutal methods that Iranian authorities use to terrorise individuals. In this piece, Freshteh celebrates the incredibly brave women prepared to take acts of defiance even when they face arrest and possible torture.

Flying the scarf for freedom   

It had started quite simply, like so many protests. After the 1979 Revolution, actions against the compulsory wearing of the hijab, and other prohibitions on (mainly) women's clothing in Iran, soon became well known not just within Iran but in many countries across the world. Initially, all hijabs had to be large, long enough to cover not just the head but the breasts, and dark coloured.

In January 2018, a young woman, a 31-year-old mother of a 20-month-old toddler girl, took off her white head scarf and draped it over a long wooden stick. She stood high up on a telephone cable box at the corner of a busy road and Revolution Square. After 10–15 minutes a police car arrived. She was arrested. The people in the square, who'd taken photos or videoed her, added her strong, confident pose to their websites or Facebook pages, and her image spread far and wide. As nobody knew her name, she was called the ‘Girl of Revolution Street’ – where she'd first made her spontaneous demonstration and protest. Within a few days many young woman had followed her lead – photographed standing high up in public places while letting their headscarves float free from the top of a long stick to show their opposition to the hijab as a form of control – and in support of the Girl of Revolution Street.

The social movement My Stealthy Freedom against the 'compulsory hijab' in Iran started in 2017. A feminist activist for the pro-choice hijab, journalist and media reporter Masieh Ali-Nejaad, currently living in the USA, suggested that on Wednesdays women wear white or hold a white head scarf as a way to show their protest against compulsory hijab-wearing: having no hijab in Iran is a crime. With a white scarf, they could quietly show their views in a peaceful way – there being no reason for the 'culture police' to arrest them. White Wednesdays quickly became popular and an enormous number of women put selfies wearing their white scarves – or no scarves – on Facebook. This inspired several memes (illustrations and logos) of confident-looking young women, outstretched arms holding up a flowing headscarf. It culminated this January in the striking and daring pose of the Girl of Revolution Street.

Also in early January 2018 were widespread demonstrations in Iran across more than 90 cities and provinces. These started with Unison's demands and also with unpaid worker gatherings or demonstrations, but soon many unemployed and educated young people, who are suffering from the very high rate of inflation, joined them. The political atmosphere changed: we saw more women either putting on a white headscarf or letting it fall to their shoulders, particularly when driving, or as passengers, in a vehicle.

The action of the Girl of Revolution Street was repeated across Tehran and other cities. Most of these young women, in their late 20s or early 30s, are educated, whether married or single. Some of them wore a non-white scarf and took action on other days, not just Wednesdays. Two examples are relevant: one, where an elderly woman with a walking stick goes about with her white scarf knotted onto her stick; the other, a woman in a long black chador plus head scarf holds up a second scarf to show she is against the compulsory hijab. Both believe the hijab should be a woman’s choice – and then the hijab would be shown more respect and thus given more value.

Many young men have joined in, holding up the slogan ‘You’re not alone’ in one hand and a head scarf in the other. Some men even walk alongside their wives who are without a scarf while they, the men, wear one. In jest, all protesters are called ‘Girls of Revolution Street’.

The first (original 31-year-old) woman has been released from prison, but others are still under arrest because they refuse to apologise for their actions – refuse to say they're ashamed of their actions. Many of these women have their family's support.

Iranian women show support for IWD in other ways: by seeking out mothers who've lost family members, especially their children, often activists who protested. They visit them to show respect, or simply gather together in someone's house to sing and celebrate in hope.



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