Viewers in Iran three weeks ago were treated to spectacle worthy of George Orwell’s 1984. On three separate nights, four women were brought on the main channel of the State-owned TV to confess. These confessions had many similarities: the women’s faces are blurred, as if they are common criminals; they are wearing headscarves fully covering their hair; and they all express deep regret and redemption for removing their compulsory hijab and resisting hijab enforcers in public.
Forced confessions are part of the tool kit of the Islamic Republic of Iran to cower and intimidate the population. It’s not unique to the regime in Tehran but it is used by dictators and autocrats everywhere from Russia and China to North Korea and Venezuela. But here, there was a difference: not only the words were forced, but also the headscarves. As the crime, here, was resisting compulsory hijab.
The Islamic Republic has forced women to wear hijab for 43 years but every year the opposition to its enforcement gets more determined. The clerics and the security forces are treating compulsory hijab as a life-and-death matter for the whole edifice of the Islamic Regime which wants to control women’s bodies. But women have resisted for 43 years. The first major demonstration against Islamization of Iran happened on the International Women’s Day, when 100,000 women in 1979 said no to the introduction of compulsory hijab. Since then, many campaigns have passed the baton of resistance from one generation to the next. Yet, in the past few years, women have become bolder, thanks to campaigns such as White Wednesdays and Girls of the Enghelab Street. A recent #No2Hijab campaign called on women to remove their hijabs in public on July 12, 2022, to challenge the regime’s newly minted “Hijab and Chastity Day”.
The regime also took a hard line. They arrested tens of women, who participated in the campaign and brought four women to TV for forced confessions.
These four women were not famous, but their videos of resistance had gone viral. As Iranian social media users, we already knew of these women, having savored their acts of resistance. But we only learned other crucial details, like their names and faces after their arrests and during their confessions.
It felt like being punched in the gut, seeing Elham Farshad, looking cowed and apparently demoralized, sitting limply in a straight-back chair, her face covered in purple bruises. In her video, which was seen by millions, she screams at a cleric ordering a woman to wear her headscarf, with colorful language: “I piss on your turban.”
On a following night, we saw Sepideh Rashno, pale-faced with bruises under her eye, being forced to confess she regrets confronting a hijab enforcer on a bus and filming this confrontation. In the pictures from her Twitter, Sepideh is a beautiful and energetic woman, who is a writer and artist. Sepideh became a hero to millions of women for her resistance.
Many of us saw ourselves in these outraged women. We didn’t have their courage, but we felt their anger and aspired to be as brave. These women were not heroes. They were ordinary women just like millions of us. Their only crime was to resist against the regime’s collaborators—cogs in the Islamic Republic’s war on women.
Social media is battleground of ideas. The forced confessions hit a nerve; it was an offense against all of us. We repeated their names in tweets and put their faces on our profile pictures, not just to spread the news, but to show they are not alone. The tone of most of the tweets making #Where_Is_Sepideh and #We_are_all_Sepideh (in Persian) trending was one of outrage.
And it is this outrage that is at the center of the televised confessions. “Unfortunately, I got angry” is the common refrain of these women’s forced confessions. They were made to express regret for their outrage. An outrage that spread far and wide with their viral videos—videos that are but the two most recent examples of a trend. The “My Camera My Weapon” campaign, launched by Masih Alinejad, is a call for and a visual collection of such outrage-laden courage against compulsory hijab. The daily death threats against Alinejad are a testament of how much this regime fears women. Indeed, in the televised confessions, the narrator kept repeating that Alinejad was the master criminal “provoking” and “manipulating” these women to act out.
Although such televised confessions have been common in the I.R. regime, this is the first time they pertain to compulsory hijab. Formerly, the accused were to confess to espionage for Israel, affiliation with MEK, and so on. Recently, however, the regime’s fight against women has come to the forefront: A fight against their bodies, clothes, and their cellphone cameras. Their cameras, because the regime is admittedly frightened about the propagation of outrage among social media users and beyond. With these forced confessions, the regime wants to replace this outrage with fear. To make examples out of these women for everyone to see.
As the number of women acting more courageously increased, and as the #No2Hijab campaign picked up momentum, spreading from Twitter to Instagram to the street and back to social media, the regime has started suppressing it more violently. Their goal is to replace outrage and courage with fear. But what these forced confessions show is the regime’s own fear—fear from women’s autonomy over their bodies, from their cellphone cameras, and from anonymous social media users who echo their voices. What these televised confessions are provoking in many Iranians, who see traces of pressure and even torture in the voices and faces of the arrested, is but more outrage. As many protestors have repeated these days: “Our outrage will one day become bigger than your power!”
Update: On August 20, after around three weeks from the forced confessions, a photo of Sepideh was published on the IR official news agency website showing her reading a document in front of a black-worn bearded man (seemed a judge) along the news that Sepideh has been charged with “collusion to disrupt national security”, propaganda against Islamic Republic”, and “promotion of prostitution”—all for her viral video of resistance against a hijab enforcer. Iranians on Twitter are guessing that these charges can lead to a sentence of 15 years imprisonment for her.
Mahya Ostovar is a women rights activist and lecturer of Business Information Systems at NUI Galway, Ireland.