How easily women take for granted choosing what we want to wear in the morning, not realizing that in some parts of the world, women, against their wishes, are mandated to observe the hijab, cover their hair, wear a scarf, and essentially be invisible.
To not dress according to the government’s rules is to risk punishment and death in a country like Iran — hard to believe in 2022 in a world still wrestling with the rights of women and girls.
Clothing is a form of self-expression, and when the right to choose what you wear is stripped away, the result is humiliation, frustration, and a loss of human rights and self-determination. The outcome is often acts of defiance in a relentless hunger for change.
The images from Iran of women protesting in the streets — challenging the morality police and demanding that the hijab dress code be ended — are a brutal reminder of what is at stake when the rights of women are violated. Not only are Iranian women taking to the streets across the country, but they are joined by men and boys.
The latest round of protests was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody. The 22-year-old Iranian woman was stopped outside a metro station for allegedly violating the hijab dress code. On Sept. 13, after being picked up by the morality police, Amini was driven to a police station where she later became unconscious She died at a nearby hospital 48 hours later. Anger rightly boiled up. So, what is the likelihood that Iran’s protests will succeed in changing the law, and what should be the role of people, especially women, outside Iran observing these events?
First, the government response to the protest matters. So far it has been harsh and cruel, employing live ammunition, tear gas, and water cannons to quell peaceful protests. Such actions have not only resulted in injury and more than 75 deaths; they can have a chilling effect on the willingness of parents to let their daughters and sons take to the streets.
If past is prologue, the Iranian authorities will crack down deeper and farther — away from the view of cameras and cellphones. (According to media reports, protests have spread to all urban centers and 31 provinces.) If brutal enough, the dissent will be quashed and another opportunity lost. Those of us who live in countries without laws demanding what women can and cannot wear have a special obligation to raise our collective voices especially for a country like Iran where censorship restricts the flow of information.
History shows that when Iranians protest, their ability to move the needle is constrained by the amount of support they receive from different factions inside the country and policies outside the region. Too often individuals and groups fight for their legitimate rights in Iran, only to experience setback and harsh punishment.
During Iran’s 2009 Green Movement, which grew out of public anger over suspected electoral fraud, disparate groups came together, connected by social media, and demanded change. But waning support from other countries, including the United States, made it difficult for the movement to sustain its momentum.
Let’s remember that for over 40 years, since the Fall of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution of 1979, countless Iranians have given their lives protesting the regime and its conservative principles. Workers have fought for basic rights and wages, students have fought for educational opportunities, and women have demanded the overturn of laws that prevent them from having custody of their children, or choosing what to wear, and when to marry. But the crackdowns have always been too harsh to counter, and the West has been to slow to react. This time could be different.
President Biden seems to have learned that lesson and has expressed public support for today’s protest movement in Iran, and the US government is taking concrete steps to help. Last week the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality policy and is permitting the activation of satellite links to restore Internet services.
For any social movement to succeed, there must be advocacy both on the ground and around the world. Institutions inside Iran need to rally around these brave women and men, while governments and citizens around the world express support and encouragement. These are indigenous protests, born from within Iranian society, despite attempts by Iranian officials to brand them as externally generated. And these are not spontaneous protests in reaction to one event.
One factor that bodes well for the Iranian women protesters is social media, which continues, as it did a decade ago, to help spread the word and ramp up protests outside Iran. With the rise of the Internet, it has been harder each year to contain demonstrations. But blackouts, hacking, and other forms of government censorship could end the protests before they have the chance to fully take off.
Now the world is watching to see if dignity, respect, and the basic human right for women to dress as they wish each day will be extended to the women of Iran. We must beat the drum with them and echo their voices.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a professor of practice in public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.