The day Iranian women protested the hijab

December 6, 2015 • 11:45 am

We often hear the claim that Muslim women wear the hijab because they want to. And perhaps that’s true for some, though one must distinguish the various causes for “want to.” These include “wanting to” because you were indoctrinated that way, “wanting to” because you know that the alternative is beating or something worse, and “wanting to” because you know you have alternatives, but you really feel better draped in cloth.

Let’s first review the various garments worn by Muslim women, which are often confused. The hijab covers the head and usually part of the chest, while the niqab also covers part of the face:


We already know that many women who wear hijabs and niqabs don’t do it voluntarily, for in places like Iran and Afghanistan,they adopted these garments only after the countries were taken over by theocracies and veiling became compulsory. Before that, many women were sporting Western dress. For instance, just do a Google image search for “Women Kabul 1970” versus “Women Kabul 2015“. Further, there have been “protest days” when women in both countries abandoned these garments as a statement against theocracy (see my posts here, here, and here).

If you need more evidence against the voluntary wearing of the hijab, The New York Times published a piece a few months ago showing some previously unpublished photos by Hengameh Golestan (a woman) documenting widespread protests by women of Iran’s theocratic dress restrictions. The history of these protests, which took place when the dress code came down, have been suppressed by Iran:

When 34-year-old photographer Azadeh Fatehrad first laid eyes on an image by Hengameh Golestan, of women protesting in the streets of Tehran in 1979, she was struck immediately — it was unlike anything she had seen before.

Born in 1981 in Iran, Fatehrad had learned in school that women made a smooth transition to Islamic rules imposed after the 1979 Revolution — in particular adopting a compulsory dress code, the hijab. But Golestan’s image told a different story: thousands of women in the street, protesting the announcement that the headwear would be mandatory.

“I couldn’t believe that photo was taken in Iran — I was completely surprised,” Fatehrad tells Women in the World by email. She describes this kind of historical record as “inaccessible” in Iran.

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Golestan, 64, a pioneer of Iranian photojournalism, remembers the day of the protest well. “The atmosphere was very joyful,” she recalls, on the phone from London, where she has lived for three decades. “Women went on strike that day, because the night before they had announced in the papers that women should wear scarves when they went to work. So nobody went to work, they all went on strike, came to the streets and from early morning they began to march from the Tehran University.”

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The date was March 8, International Women’s Day, and the image shows women from all walks of life — nurses, students, mothers — marching, smiling, arms raised in protest. More than 100,000 of them. At the time, Golestan recalls, Iranian people were very “politically charged” and believed change could be effected by demonstrating in the streets. “This time they were disappointed,” she says. “From the next day everybody had to wear the scarf.”

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There’s also a story and photos in the Torygraph (both pieces published in September, but I’m behind). Perhaps someone who reads Arabic can translate the sign in the photo below:


Sensing the importance of the occasion, Golestan decided to attend as a photographer rather than a protestor. At the time, there were few documentary photographers in Tehran. “People were not really familiar with that type of journalism,” says Golestan. “At demonstrations…there were not enough of us [photographers] to be noticed….But taking pictures in the crowd was not easy, most of the time I was running and hiding from the government officials who did not want images to be taken. It was a solo undertaking, the fact that you would have to constantly run and hide made it impossible to go in as a team.”


It bothers me when people claim that we don’t understand why Muslim women wear the hijab, arguing that it’s purely voluntary. The photos above show that’s not completely true.



68 thoughts on “The day Iranian women protested the hijab

    1. I think the general argument is that it’s LARGELY voluntary, but of course there’s no evidence for that at all. All we can see is how many women were veiled before the government required them to be. The photographic evidence that I adduced here and in other posts suggests that not many women voluntarily chose the veil before theocracy.

      1. I think the general argument is that it’s LARGELY voluntary, but of course there’s no evidence for that at all. All we can see is how many women were veiled before the government required them to be.

        I think that we should also look at women who veil in countries like mine, largely where they’re an ethnic/religious minority (e.g., the US, France, the UK, etc.) to take a comparison. That’s where the largely voluntary part comes in, as a statement of identity (?) and more.OTOH, I have vivid memories of the women’s marches in ’79, having close connexions with the Iranian expats at my uni at the time (largely because of being a Persian poetry aficionado, as well as a citizen of the world and a 2nd wave feminist), but I remember really well. And then followed what was happening in Afghanistan, for instance, under the Taliban, with mounting alarm and horror. And have done so, since.

        1. FWIW, what I also remember from that time about how women expressed their feelings in Iran was that they overall applauded the Westernisation of the country under the Shah, but deplored such things as SAVAK. Many of them welcomed the Imam, as well, at least for a while. My impression was that there was very much a sense of being hung on one’s own petard as things developed, a sense of self-doubt especially in women as they saw the results of “revolutionary thought” working out. It was really painful for any student of history to witness, I think.

        2. Even in the West, the wearing of such coverings is very often not voluntary but forced by husbands, families, and community “enforcers” whose excesses are tolerated by politically correct, apologist local authorities in the name of “diversity”

    2. Well in response to the point that hijab/niqab/etc is forced on some women it is often said hijab/niqab/wearers do not need rescuing which could be interpreted as not all need rescuing but in the context of disagreement with the original point made suggests should be interpreted as none need rescuing. It is all very slippery.

      If we assume that people should be able to wear what they like without criticism, does this mean Jews could wear the yellow star if they voluntarily so chose or black people could wear a slave collar? I don’t know, maybe they should be able to. I must express myself to be confused over this issue. But if not how is the case of niqab/hijab different? Unless you argue all niqabs/ hijabs etc are worn by free choice which apparently is a straw man.

    3. When he was president of Iran, I heard Ahmadinejad say at least twice that their women chose to be veiled.

      There are a couple of good documentaries on YouTube about the women’s movement in Iran. It’s largely underground, but they’re positive about their ability to effect change.

    4. Voluntary is like altruism. Are any acts altruistic? Assume, for the moment, that determinism does not matter, then you can never pinpoint a motivation to act as either altruistic (or voluntary).

  1. The sign in the photo is not in Arabic. Iranians speak Farsi (Persian). It reads as “Despotism is despotism, and is condemned in its all forms.”

    1. Such a sad sign, given how it all played out. To lose one despot and have the hope of a better future only to be put under the thumb of another… my heart aches for the Iranian people.

    1. Yes and doubly sad that women are, time and again, shown in surveys and censuses as being more religious than men.

      1. The oppression of authority. Fear, like that of an abusive husband, can lead to submission. Males can be sickeningly good, despite their low intelligence, at forcing ‘enabling’ behavior in women. Just enough reward to keep them in place with social, mental, and sometimes, physical constraints.

        1. I actually think it is the judgment of other women, more than men, that keep women in their place. Women tend to repeat the oppression and hand that down to their children, shame other women and ensure the cycle continues. A woman shamed has no friends and having no friends is lonely and sometimes dangerous.

    1. Fascinating. I am not well informed on the matter, but I have long had the impression of Iran as a modern group of people held back by religious oppressors. This contrasts with my impression of, say, Saudi Arabia, which is of a un-modern group of people whose regressive government might be a slight improvement on where the populace would have naturally led them. Said another way, it’s easier for me to imagine an Iran that could be real friends with the West than a Saudi Arabia that could. This makes our current friendly (or frenemy) relationship with Saudi Arabia and open hostility towards Iran feel extra painful to me.

      I could be totally wrong about this, but that is the impression I have gotten.

  2. Any number of the women in those pictures were killed by the regime for refusing to be veiled. I have talked to people whose aunts and other female relatives were among them. One of them was a very prominent lawyer who was hanged on charges of prostitution– in reality she simply refused to veil. The death toll was in the thousands. It was a well-orgnaized femicide.
    We’d do well not to forget.

    1. Yes, and that Burka. You just know there are thousands, standing in line to put one of these on. Really good in the summer heat. Like to see some of the guys try these on.

    2. Of course, you are never taught of these horrible things when you take history courses in the West. I’ve always found the history of the Islamic world to be lacking.

  3. Having read about but not yet seen the new movie by Spike Lee, Chi-Raq, I understand it’s a modern-day retelling of Lysistrata by Aristophanes.

    I’d love to see the reaction to it from the women of Iran today if they are able to stream it in private!

  4. I worked in Iran until the Shah was overthrown in 1979 and was evacuated by the Royal Navy from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. Women in the Tehran were very cosmopolitan and it was only in the rural areas where you saw women wearing the chador. Prior to that I worked in Saudia Arabia and flew back to Europe via Bahrain. It was only a 6 minute flight from Dhahran to Bahrain but there would always be several women who would visit the WC to divest themselves of their niqab and reappear in mini-skirts.

  5. I know that I am generalising here but is it any surprise that Muslim males have a tendency toward anger and violence when they deliberately deny themselves life’s simplest and most harmless pleasures? Beer for example.

    1. First of all, denying themselves beer is going to decrease their tendency towards violence. Second, violence is hardly the preserve of Muslim males. Do you have any evidence that Muslim men are any more violent on average than men anywhere else?

  6. I don’t see how you can say anyone is wearing any of these things willingly. Unless you’re cold, or think it looks good on you. My daughter had a Muslim friend when she was in high school who wore the Hijab, and she did look cute in it.

    1. Some Muslim women in Western countries say the niqab empowers them because when talking to men, men are not distracted by their looks and can focus on what they say.

      1. The women who say the niqab empowers them because men can focus on what they say underestimate the sexual imagination of males. The burka would probably accomplish it though.

      2. “Some Muslim women in Western countries”

        I guess it failed in the case I mentioned, my daughters friend looked cute in it, and presumably that would have caused me to pay less attention to what she was saying. I guess she needs an upgrade to the burka. :p

        1. From my experience, there will always be some males who can’t hear a woman. Even nice men, like my Director won’t hear me tell him something 4 times but hears my male co-worker tell him something once. Ugh! I made a big deal out of this last time it happened (in a pleasant way) so maybe he will be aware of it now.

          I joke that I must have the voice like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

      3. It’s weird because if I talk to someone veiled like that, I find that she is somewhat dehumanized. I can’t see her expressions and she is so separated from the rest of us. Perhaps she feels it is easier for her to talk to men, but to me, as a woman, I have a hard time talking to her.

      4. Naaaah- the men are just distracted because they’re trying to make sure they’re not hearing any ticking sounds.
        I KNOW, I know, bad taste, bad timing, probably racist. I just couldn’t resist. My pre-emptive apologies 🙂

    2. Do Amish women wear bonnets because they want to? Do Amish men wear beards because they want to? There are quite a number of religious groups who have a distinct uniform of some sort. In my mind, few of these uniforms are truly voluntary. Most are enforced at least by group pressure, sometimes mere approbation or lack of it, sometimes much more forcefully. I am suspicious of them all, because they all speak to some kind of oppression of free thought by a group.

      1. It’s that pressure to live in the 7th century that is most annoying. Or, in the case of republicans – the last century.

  7. See the fb page, ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ run by Iranian journalist and blogger Masih Alinejad (a woman). It encourages Iranian women to upload selfies without the hijab: v. successful too. Women’s hair as a revolutionary act.

    1. How do they get away with it? Is Iran not zealous enough in enforcing the rule to track them down, or is it just too hard?

  8. I was a teaching assistant at the University of Texas in Austin in 1980. Many fleeing Iranian intellectuals had taken refuge in the US, and there were many Iranians in my classes. They were far more cosmopolitan, worldly, well-educated, and brighter than the native Texan students in the same classes. It seemed to me then that the native Texans (many, not all) were the product of a regressive theocracy, while the Iranians were a breath of fresh air.

    1. That is an interesting observation. Your assumption makes perfect sense to me. I think a lot of citizens in southern states are subject to regressive theocracies.

    2. There were several Iranian guys in college in St. Louis when I was there in 1974/5 period. Always wondered what happened to them as well.

      When I was at Sheppard AFB in 1968 there were lots of them in training there, either learning to fly jets or learning to work on them. What happened to them later on, I have no idea.

    3. I had a Persian boyfriend in ’70-’71 at Oregon State. Interestingly, he & several friends had transferred from Texas because they encountered too much racism there. (They could have come from A&M–most of them were petroleum engineering students.)

      Yes, they were well-educated and Frank (Fereydoon) explained to me that only the richest families sent their sons to the US for further education. He hated the Shah, but he was an atheist and political liberal and I’ve often worried about how he and his friends fared after the revolution.

      (Jeez, Lou, I was working as a lab tech for Guy Bush at UT from ~ 1977-1979. Did you work for Larry Gilbert?)

  9. I still call myself a feminist, although I often wonder why when I see seemingly the vast majority of feminists genuflect to Islamic patriarchy. The most grating excuse for the hijab et al. is indeed the “choice”/agency narrative, which of course ignores how indoctrination into second-class status can become internalized. You’d think people who readily see internalized homophobia and racism (almost to the opposite extreme of stripping non-whites of a right to be Republicans/Tories of their own volition) would spot misogyny, but no. The regressive left love affair with Islam will be looked upon I hope with the same shame as leftwing support for Stalin and Mao.

    1. “The regressive left love affair with Islam will be looked upon I hope with the same shame”
      With enough time, ceiling cat willing.

    2. I couldn’t agree more, Victoria!

      I’m still trying to hang onto the word feminism, meaning the kind of my young adulthood (60s-70s) but I seldom feel comfortable using the term lately, and never without a lot of defining.

  10. I wonder what the Iranian men thought about this law. Hair is a part of a woman’s beauty, and who doesn’t enjoy looking at beauty?Personally, I’d be pissed if women were made to hide themselves in public.

  11. Whether it is still in force under Erdogan I have no idea, but Kemal Ataturk banned the Veil from all Public Buildings in Turkey; I can’t believe that the majority of Muslim Women in Islamic and non Islamic Countries would want to wear the thing, for me it’s a sign of oppression.

  12. Thanks to Jerry Coyne for that link to the Wikipedia article on the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Interesting that many Iranians were tricked into accepting the theocracy that befell them. (going by the article anyway)

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