The fact that millions of Iranian women feel oppressed by the regime in Tehran is not news. Gender segregation is a cornerstone of the regime’s patriarchal laws and customs and although women enjoy equality with men in some areas such as voting and education, Iranian women are legally and even morally, according to the regime, inferior to men.
What is news is that many Iranian men are now actively supporting women’s rights. The latest campaign, initiated by Masih Alinejad in her popular facebook page My Stealthy Freedom, is as simple as it is powerful: #MenInHijab. Iranian men, donning hijabs, are taking pictures of themselves, sometimes with women who are notably “hijab-less” in a clear message of solidarity with their wives, sisters, daughters, mothers and friends.
The campaign was launched with a picture of Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, in a hijab asking him how he would feel if he was forced to wear a hijab. “How do you feel? The picture is comical? weird? or do you see it as a personal insult?” the post asks Zarif adding “That’s exactly how the women who do not believe in compulsory hijab feel” and that “You say everyone must obey the law. But bad laws should not be obeyed”.
It’s important to note that the compulsory nature of the hijab was not always a part of Islamic Sharia law. The hijab’s role in Islam is viewed by devout Muslims as a means to ensure the modesty of women. But the issue of mandatory hijab post-dates the Qur’an. The Qur’an does instruct women to be modest and points out that Mohammad’s wives were urged to go out wearing the “outer garments over their person” in order to “not be harassed”. Some Muslim communities have opted to force women to wear hijabs while other communities have made the hijab optional.
Mandatory hijab laws in Iran are heavily enforced by the “morality police”, voluntary Basij militias and the Iranian authorities in general. Women, mainly the younger and more secular ones, would rather the hijab be optional but notwithstanding such a dramatic change in the law, they tend to wear their hijabs in such a way that more of their hair and face are showing. Iranian women not wearing “proper hijab” are regularly harassed and fined and return “offenders” are interrogated and arrested.
Stemming from the same effort to keep women “modest”, Iranian women are not allowed to perform on stage in front of men and cannot view a sports game in a stadium. Why? According to the regime, it’s because by doing so, they might entice Iranian men to rape them.
This isn’t the first time that Iranian men came to the aid of their female compatriots: In October 2015, another campaign by My Stealthy Freedom called ItsMensTurn called on men to take pictures of themselves with messages of support written on paper or on their hands supporting women men.
This ground-roots movement is exactly what Iranian women need. The hardline men in the patriarchal regime must understand that not all men believe in oppressing women who could be their wives, sisters, mothers or daughters. They must understand the mandatory hijab laws are not only an affront to many women who want it to be optional but is an affront to men as well.
This movement is not about hijabs and modesty. It’s about power and freedom. Many Iranian women will continue to wear hijabs even if they were optional but for those who find the hijab stifling physically and emotionally, the mandatory hijab laws are an oppression of their will to live their lives as they see fit. For them, the mandatory hijab is a symbol of their curtailed freedom by a zero-tolerance patriarchal regime. As far as the regime is concerned, allowing women to decide whether or not to wear hijabs is a sign of weakness in its resolve to uphold Islamic Revolutionary ideals.
The issue of the hijab is brewing into a real battleground between the regime and many Iranians just as the taxes on tea became a battleground between the British colonialists and the American people, the “Boston Tea Party”, a battle which eventually led to the American independence.