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While Western activists defend the right of Muslims to wear the veil, Iranian women are fighting for a bigger cause: choice.

The revolution that swept through Iran 40 years ago ruptured all diplomatic ties between Iran and the United States. This we know all too well. But another bond, one between Iranian feminists and their American counterparts, was also ruptured, which, unlike the other, occurred in virtual anonymity.

In March 1979, days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to power, the American feminist icon Kate Millett traveled to Tehran. On March 8, Millett looped arms with fellow women demonstrators to protest against Khomeini’s proposal to reinstitute a mandatory dress code for women, the hijab. If there were a moment that could stand for a perfect microcosm of all that was right about Iran then—and for all that was about to go wrong—it was that moment in March. Veiled women, alongside unveiled women, were throwing their fists into the air, demanding gender equality. When reporters asked the veiled women what they were protesting, since they themselves wore the veil, they unanimously said they objected to the eradication of choice.

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A powerful woman, a protest movement, and the political interests impeding them.

I mages of Iranian women standing on utility boxes and ripping off their mandatory hijab have become the lasting image of ongoing protests in the Islamic Republic. And yet, as officials in the Trump administration have embraced those images and vocally supported the women, the discomfort that Western liberals have the idea of regime change in the country, and how that affects their interpretation of hijab protests, has been on full display.

A recent memoir by Masih Alinejad, The Wind in My Hair, shows us just how misguided that cynicism is. Covering her head against her wishes was one of the simpler cruelties she endured in the Islamic Republic. She was kicked out of high school for asking witty questions of her teachers, later imprisoned, and separated from her son by a retaliatory custody arrangement followed by forced exile from the Islamic Republic.

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By  Masih Alinejad

With the U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal, Iran will soon face renewed economic sanctions, compounding a crisis that has seen its currency go into freefall. On top of that, the Trump administration has signaled its readiness for political and perhaps even military confrontation with the Islamic Republic. These are very real pressures, but I would argue that they don’t threaten the ruling mullahs nearly as much as a growing domestic development: the prospect of unveiled Iranian women.

The Islamic Republic’s key vulnerability has always been its oppression of women. Since coming to power in 1979, the theocracy has imposed compulsory hijab laws, requiring women to securely wrap their heads in scarves in public. Over the past four years, however, with little help or notice from Western powers pressing the regime on other fronts, Iranian women have countered the most visible symbol of clerical rule. They have begun to remove their headscarves in unprecedented acts of civil disobedience, fostering a crisis of self-confidence for the regime.

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