Tired of their veils, some Iranian women stage rare protests

Two Iranian women made their way across a square in downtown Tehran.
Two Iranian women made their way across a square in downtown Tehran.Vahid Salemi/Associated Press/File 2017

TEHRAN — Climbing atop a 5-foot-tall utility box in one of Tehran’s busiest squares Monday, an Iranian woman removed her head scarf, tied it to a stick, and waved it for all to see. It was no small feat in Iran, where women can be arrested for publicly flouting the Islamic requirement that they cover their hair.

But there she stood, her curly hair blowing in the breeze. No one protested. In fact, she was applauded by many people. Taxi drivers and older women took her picture. Police, who maintain a booth in the square, either did not see her or decided not to intervene.


“My hands were trembling, the 28-year-old said, asking not to be named out of fear of arrest. “I was anxious and feeling powerful at the same time. And proud, I felt proud.”

She was not alone. On Monday several other women, a total of six, according to social media accounts, made the same symbolic gesture: taking off their head scarves in public and waving them on a stick, emulating a young woman who climbed on the same sort of utility box on Dec. 27 and was subsequently arrested. Activists say she has since been released, but she has still has not resurfaced in public.

At least one of the women protesting Monday was arrested by police, a shopkeeper who witnessed the arrest said.

The protests, still small in number, are nevertheless significant as a rare public sign that dissatisfaction with certain Islamic laws governing personal conduct may have reached a boiling point. As the 28-year-old woman said, “I took my scarf off because I’m tired of our government telling me what to do with my body.”

And some said this might just be the beginning. “My guess is that more of these protests will follow,” said Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer and human rights activist. “It’s obvious that some women want to decide for themselves what to wear.”


That remains to be seen, but the protests have already gained enough attention to provoke angry reactions in some quarters.

“These protests are done by instigators, saboteurs, and vandalists and anarchists,” said one critic, Kazem Anbarlooie, editor-in-chief of the hard-line newspaper Resalat. “Recently our enemies were communists and liberals, now Americans are provoking masochists against us.”

The first protest in December took place on a Wednesday and seemed connected to the White Wednesday campaign, an initiative by Masih Alinejad, an exiled Iranian journalist and activist living in the United States.

Alinejad has reached out to Iranian women on Persian-language satellite television and through social media, where she runs a website called My Stealthy Freedom. On the website, women post images of themselves without head scarves, demanding an end to the compulsory head-scarf law.

While discriminatory Islamic divorce and inheritance laws pose problems for individual women, the head scarf is a highly public symbol of a set of personal rules imposed by Iran’s clerical leaders, who decide what people can wear, what music they can listen to, and what television programs and movies they get to see.

Men are also the subject of clothing laws: They are forbidden to wear shorts in public.

During the past decade, influenced by the rise of the Internet, satellite television, and cheap foreign travel, many Iranians have grown deeply resentful of rules that they can see for themselves are out of step with most of the rest of the world.


Many have become relatively secular and feel increasingly unwelcome in the fixed-in-stone state version of Shi’ite Islam, and many have taken to flouting the rules whenever and wherever they feel free enough to do so.

In past years, the morality police zealously enforced the rules, arresting women and men who violated them. But under the current president, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, those officers have largely been taken off the streets.

Their removal was a gesture to a radically changed society, but it was also a recognition that there were not enough enforcers available to control a society that resents and rejects the rules.

Women without head scarves can been seen everywhere in Tehran, in their cars, in shopping centers, and even on the street, but always with the scarves draped over their shoulders, as if they have only just slipped off.

But the public protests are different because they are a symbolic rejection of authority and a statement that some young women are apparently ready to emulate. “I was working when I saw the image of another woman protesting on social media,” the 28-year-old said in a telephone interview. She said she informed some friends and co-workers about her intentions.