- BBC News World
The death of Mahsa Amini in police custody last year sparked protests from thousands of women and girls, who took to the streets of Iran to protest.
Mahsa, a 22-year-old Kurdish girl, was arrested for allegedly wearing the hijab “inappropriately”. But this isn’t the first time a protest of this magnitude has defied the authorities’ edict on what women should wear and how they should behave.
In 1979, what was originally supposed to be a small gathering to commemorate International Women’s Day, a date considered by the then newly appointed Supreme Leader of Iran as a Western invention, turned into a massive demonstration.
Just 24 hours earlier, the architect of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had decreed that all women must wear an Islamic headscarf in the workplace.
In a speech to thousands of his supporters in the city of Qom, he stated that, without the veil, women were “naked”according to sharia.
To protest the new decree, more than 10,000 women and men took to the streets of Tehran on March 8, 1979, International Women’s Day.
“That day the struggle between the ayatollah and the women began,” Mehrangiz Kar, 78, a lawyer and prominent human rights activist, who took part in the protest, told the BBC.
The veil has become a political symbol in he revolutionary iranany.
Shah Reza Pahlaví banned any type of Islamic veil in 1936 and, for five years, until his son Mohamed Reza Pahlaví came to power, women who wore the hijab or the chador (garment that covers the entire body except the face) in public space were attacked by police.
That ban ended in 1941, but the regime continued to promote western clothing.
Everything changed with the revolution
Many women who participated in the protests that overthrew the Pahlavi regime covered their hair with a veil; the majority for conservatism, the least for solidarity.
“The Iranian revolution started to become a sexual counter-revolution, a struggle for women’s sexuality”, says Hamideh Sedghi in her study “Women and Politics in Iran: Veil, Revelation and Return of the Veil”.
Women who did not cover themselves began to be considered a symbol of western culturewhile the veil was promoted as the epitome of virtue.
In the demonstrations that led to the revolution, it was common to hear slogans such as It isfor rusari, ya toosari(“wear a veil or they’ll hit you on the head”), or “death by unraveling”, writes the American academic.
Many women, especially in cities, began to feel that their freedoms were in danger and they had to defend them.
The morning after Khomeini’s announcement, thousands of women gathered at the Faculty of Law at the University of Tehran. The demonstration was organized by the Bar Association of the capital, where Mehrangiz Kar was an intern.
“The atmosphere was revolutionary,” he fondly recalls. “The building was full and even outside there were a lot of people. There was no one to stop us. I remember a woman going upstairs and throwing her hijab out the window. It was as symbolic as it was beautiful. It was the first act of defiance against Khomeini’s ideology“.
Women of all ages marched through the streets of the capital chanting “we didn’t make a revolution to go back” and demonstrated in front of the prime minister’s office. Another 3,000 protested in the city of Qom, where Khomeini lived.
Demonstrations spread six days.
Many men supported the protests, creating a cordon between the women and conservative counter-protesters, who would yell at them outside or throw stones or glass at them. Some were subject to assaults and were even stabbed.
As a young law student in Tehran in 1979, Mehrangiz was used to a seemingly cosmopolitan urban life. Men and women mingled freely and makeup and Western clothing such as dresses were common.
To have those freedoms taken away overnight was a “shock,” says Mehrangiz.
“We felt that our freedom was being challenged. You have to understand that, just a few days before, men and women would go together to cafes and to the cinema. We could play sports together and climb mountains.”
The mobilization of women seemed to workand the regime temporarily backtracked on its headscarf decree.
However, once the new ultra-conservative regime took complete control of the country, eliminating the secular and left-wing opposition, the imposition of the headscarf took more and more space.
In 1980, it was forbidden for women to enter public buildings with their heads uncovered or go to work uncovered. The following year, the veil was imposed for all girls and women aged 9 and over in all public spaces.
In Iran today, single men and women risk being harassed by the so-called morality police if they are caught walking down the street together.
Only now, says Mehrangiz, does he realize how they didn’t know this would be just the beginning of their fight for equal rights in Iran.
In the years since, gender segregation has taken hold in education and the workplace. Dress code and rules of conduct for women have become increasingly restrictive.
“We had so much hope at that time. We didn’t know how violent this would become. We really thought that after that protest they would give up control”, says the lawyer.
the fight goes on
43 years later, Iranian women are still fighting for those same rights.
The relay was taken over by a new generation of women, born under an increasingly restrictive regime.
Among them is Zara, a psychologist in her thirties who participated in several of the demonstrations after Mahsa Amini’s death last year and who still fears arrest for speaking out about the protests.
The courts in the capital, Tehran, decided prison sentences of up to 10 years about 400 people, and has executed four men since the demonstrations began last September.
But despite the risks, Zara guarantees that she will not give up.
“I have no doubt that I will continue. For months I feared arrest. I feel unsafe even in my own home. But I will not stop fighting until the day I die.”
Zara gets her inspiration and courage from women like Mehrangiz.
“If in this generation we know our rights and how to fight for them, it is only because of the women who fought before usZara says.
Both Mehrangiz and Zara see a glimmer of hope for the future. At least for now, they say, the effort inside and outside Iran to support women and fight for gender equality has yet to be overshadowed.
“The presence of women on the streets not wearing hijabs has never ceased. I think it is one of the most courageous acts of defiance that women have ever performed. Now the world knows that women in Iran are subject to discrimination and they fight for their rights until death”, confides Zara.
“This country will not be free until women are free”.
*With reporting by M.forrina Daras of the BBC World Service.
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