Iranian Women Push Back Against Islamic Republic Vigilantes

Vahid Yucesoy

A woman walking along a busy street. A total stranger accosting her, insulting her, and threatening to get her arrested, all because of not “properly” observing her compulsory hijab. These scenes have become commonplace in Iran since the revolution that has imposed a compulsory dress code on women. But increasingly, women have been defying their harassers with a simple tool: Their cameras.

Lately, authorities in the Islamic Republic have intensified their witch-hunt against unveiled women or those that they deem to be “badly-veiled” in a bid to assert their fraying control over society. Countless videos coming Iran report on a spike in street harassment by authorities directed at women. Many of these women take enormous risks to film their harassers, some of whom are affiliated with the regime. That they’re willing to take such risks to film is testimony to how fed up they are with incessant government interference in their private lives.

Despite such a drive from authorities, they have admitted to their weakness in the face of rising tide of civil disobedience amongst Iranian women: the police clearly have a difficulty to police women’s hijab in Iran.

Iranian women have been resisting compulsory dress code ever since it became a law in the early years of the revolution. Such resistance has taken various forms. From starting to exchange chadors with ‘manteaux’, to challenging the government’s color restrictions by wearing bright colors, to challenging the Islamic interpretation of hijab’s forms and dark colors.

As authorities in Iran intensified their repression inside the country contemporaneously with the spread of social media activism, the fight against compulsory dress code has moved to a virtual ground with concrete repercussions inside the country. Masih Alinejad, a veteran journalist, a former reformist, and a formidable challenge to Iran’s theocratic regime, has launched the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic’s rule from abroad. With My Stealthy Freedom and White Wednesdays campaigns geared to amplify Iranian women’s voice against forced dress code, Alinejad has managed to give voice to large segment of Iranian population whose voice had thus far been largely ignored.

The Islamic Republic of Iran also takes her challenge very seriously. In an interview, Alinejad said “They have issued various death threats against me. Clerics have also expressed anger due to the rising popularity of the anti-compulsory hijab movement inside Iran.”

Alinejad launched the #MyCameraIsMyWeapon campaign to empower Iranian women against their harassers, whom themselves feel empowered by the government’s anti-women laws. The goal of the campaign is to urge Iranian women to film their harassers in the streets and share them online in order to fight against such harassment. The campaign put the spotlight on this enduring problem for Iranian women and empowered them to fight against their harassers in a context where the laws are against women themselves. Ever since, the impact of the campaign has been so far-reaching that certain videos of street violence towards women by authorities churned out domestic debate.

At the same time, the authorities have criminalized the act of sending videos to Alinejad as a desperate attempt to stop these embarrassing encounters. So far, they have failed to stem the tide.

Alinejad highlighted a recent spate of attacks on women not observing the compulsory hijab in Iran: “The videos I’ve received from inside Iran lay bare authorities’ concern with their loosening grip on women’s bodies. A disturbing video I’ve received from Tehran shows an ultra-religious pro-regime man insulting 3 teenage girls in broad daylight for not wearing hijab”, said Alinejad. In addition to insulting the teenagers, he ends up spitting on the face of one of the girls. To add insult to injury, his wife demands that they apologize to her husband because he is connected to the regime. In spite of such threats and coarse language used by the man, the girls stand their ground and film the entire altercation.

Even in Iran’s most conservative city, Qom, challenges against compulsory hijab haunt the authorities of the Islamic Republic. In a video I’ve received from Qom, a group of girls talked about increased harassment by the morality police, chasing after “badly veiled women”. While running away from the morality police, the girls also filmed their ordeal.

The involvement of clerics themselves in such harassment is also ubiquitously seen scene in Iran. In the small town of Zarand, in Kerman Province, a cleric chases an unveiled woman and calls her “piece of s***” for not observing the compulsory hijab. Rather than being intimidated by these threats and insults, the woman courageously responds: “My hijab is none of your business”.

Such scenes of civil disobedience by women and filming authorities have been proliferating much to the chagrin of regime officials. Compulsory hijab has been one of the pillars of the clerical regime. The fact that women, even from rural backgrounds, are increasingly challenging the mandatory dress code has been sending shockwaves across the higher echelons of power who keep investing in morality despite the fact that the economy has taken a nosedive from sanctions and the coronavirus.

As the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy plummets and its ability to buy the loyalty of the population has diminished, it now relies solely on repression to sustain its rule. Oppressing women and controlling their bodies has been one of the most visible hallmarks of its reign. But the women are fighting back and that’s a worrying sign for the ruling clerics.

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