Iran: History of Women's Rights and "Hijabs"

Mahsa Amini is a name we have only heard within the last week but a name that shall not be forgotten. A 22-year-old Iranian woman died after three days in police custody where she fell into a coma. The question that needs to be answered at this point is why she was in police custody in the first place. She was arrested by the so-called “moral policies” because she was not wearing her hijab properly. Iranian women have been familiar with repression but these recent events have created a huge wave of protest where many people are injured or even killed, access to the Internet is heavily restricted, and the thing which is trying to be done through the movement of “taking off hijabs” which is mandatory to all women to wear. To understand how things escalated to this point today, it is important to take a deeper look into the past of Iran on this issue. Here is the history of women’s rights in Iran for us to deepen our understanding and strengthen our support for all the people who are fighting for this; because even though it seems like a regional issue, it actually is universal.


It is possible to divide the history of women’s rights into two sections: “Before the Islamic Revolution” and “After the Islamic Revolution”. The first important figure that should be mentioned here is Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925–1941), who was a leader that aimed to modernize Iran and emphasized women’s education for the first time officially (Hasannia 2019). Not only educational rights have been heavily sat upon, but laws about marriage were a hot topic in his time of authority as well. The one thing that stands out from his reign was, ironically, outlawing hijabs. Contrasting with what is happening today, for a while, Iranian women were not allowed to wear hijabs, which also was not welcomed and was counted as an intervention against the freedom of everyone to live their religion. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi came after and was the last leader before the Islamic Revolution. The laws and implementations of the “no-hijab” idea were much more relaxed at this time, but the women who chose to wear one were still excluded from many aspects of daily life and/or society itself, especially employment. Notwithstanding all the changes that occurred, the law of Iran still held men much more important when it comes to any kind of affairs. So, let's take a look at what happened after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A bit after, Iran’s new leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that it was mandatory for all women to cover up with hijabs regardless of their nationality or religion. If you were a female within the borders of the region of Iran, it was the law. Only men had a right to divorce in marriages and also women's custody rights were also heavily limited. Now, women are not free to travel or obtain passports without a male guardian’s written permission which affects many aspects of their lives, especially employment. The list goes on. But, how did the women of Iran react to these instant changes in styles of living? Well, what is happening today definitely is not the first outrage to the issue of hijabs.


An example of this would be the story of Esha Momeni, an Iranian activist and scholar affiliated with UCLA’s Gender Studies Department, in 2008. She was arrested for a month at Tehran’s ill-famed Evin Prison. The reason was that she was working on a documentary about women activists and the 1 Million Signatures Campaign that aimed to reform the laws against women who were responsible for the discrimination. “People are done with the hope of internal reform. People not wanting hijab is a sign of them wanting the system to change fundamentally,” Momeni stated (The Hindustan Times). Another spike was in 2009. Shams tells the story, a writer and rights activist since her student days at Tehran University, of how she was under attack by the media members who were supporting the government’s practices. Even though the different spikes of fire from different points throughout the timeline, the government always found a way to reestablish its authority over women and people who go out for this purpose of freedom, which is sadly not different from what is happening today.


To conclude, Iran's women's movement continues despite oppressive regulations such as authorized male polygamy, legalized stoning, and street police raids against women who do not follow the dress code like what is happening in the last weeks. We, as people with the privilege of expressing ourselves freely in many ways, have to stand with Iranian women and the people who support them, and this can only happen through knowing the background and the formality of the legislation and the perspectives for women.

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