Iranian social media users protest forced hijab to mark International Women’s Day

Raz Zimmt analyzes the campaign on Iranian social media to eliminate the legal requirement for women to wear the hijab in Iran.

From Facebook, "NoForcedHijab
From Twitter.  #NoForcedHijab

International Women’s Day, which took place on March 8, provided Iranian human rights activists with an opportunity to renew their struggle towards repealing the law imposing the hijab on women in public places in Iran since the Islamic Revolution. The campaign was conducted mainly on social networking sites (SNS), similar to other civil struggles for women’s rights in Iran. In recent years, SNS have played a central role in raising public awareness of the discrimination against women in the Islamic Republic, and as a means of exerting pressure on the authorities, who find it difficult to remain indifferent to the ongoing processes of social and cultural change occurring in Iranian society.

As part of the campaign to increase awareness of the coercive nature of the law and concomitant harm to the rights of women in Iran, Iranian users articulated their opposition to the requirement, and presented it as a manifestation of how the Islamic regime oppresses women. They claimed that the right to choose what to wear is a basic human right, one that is currently denied to half of the Iranian population. One comment read, “As long as the hijab is forced, Iran is one big prison.”[1] Others stressed that the imposition of the veil harms not only women, but Iranian society as a whole, by portraying men as weak creatures who are unable to look at women’s hair without it arousing their urges.[2]

The virtual campaign peaked on March 8, when thousands of Iranian users flooded Twitter with tweets using the hashtag “No Forced Hijab” in English and Persian. Reactions included the sharing of photographs and videos documenting the activities of the Iranian law enforcement forces responsible for implementing the Islamic dress code. The campaign also included images from the struggle of women against the policy of mandatory hijab initially declared by the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, in March 1979 following his ascension to power.

Along with the many expressions of support the campaign received, there was a discussion about focusing on the hijab as the main issue of International Women’s Day. Some users stressed that Iranian women suffer from discrimination and oppression in many other areas, and therefore it is wrong to focus on the struggle against the imposition of the hijab. One user referred, for example, to discrimination against women in the areas of divorce, custody of children, and the right to travel abroad without her husband’s permission.[3] Another pointed out that restricting the struggle for women’s rights to the issue of hijab oppresses women who are denied many other substantive rights.[4] The reactions reflect a debate that has occupied Iranian human rights activists in recent years, revolving around whether it is right to focus the struggle to promote women’s rights in Iran on the hijab, or whether it is preferable to focus on other issues, especially changing the laws that discriminate against women in the Islamic Republic.

Although most of the responses expressed strong opposition to forced hijab, there were other voices of religious-minded users who were in favor of the law. One of the users, who identifies on Twitter as a cleric living in the Shiite religious center of Qom, claimed that the enforcement of the veil is not an imposition of an opinion, but law enforcement similar to other laws practiced worldwide, comparing it to the law that forbids eating in public during the month of Ramadan.[5]Although these are only a few voices, they seem to indicate that Iranian users who hold conservative worldviews are joining discourse on SNS and recognize the networks’ potential to spread their worldview and mobilize public support. This is a marked change from previous years, when the Iranian networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, which are blocked by the authorities, were dominated by users with reformist and liberal views.

The struggle against the imposition of the hijab is part of a comprehensive campaign in recent years in Iran to change legislation that discriminates against women in various fields, including legal status, rights in marriage and divorce, and integration into public and political positions. This campaign reflects the social and demographic changes taking place in Iran, and affects the public struggle to eliminate discrimination against women in the Islamic Republic. Thus, for example, in September 2015 there were widespread protests on SNS after the captain of the Iranian women’s football team, Niloufar Ardalan, was legally prevented from travelling abroad to participate in the Asian championship because of her husband’s opposition. In response, Iranian human rights activists launched an online PR campaign calling for changes to legislation that discriminates against married women when they travel abroad. SNS also played a central role in the struggle to increase the representation of women in the Iranian Majlis, in which there were only nine women (out of 290 representatives) prior to the parliamentary elections in February 2016.[6]The struggle ended with a limited but noteworthy achievement: the number female representatives in the Majlis increased to seventeen.

The impetus for the struggle against the enforcement of the Islamic dress code for women is widely considered to be the initiative of an exiled Iranian journalist in London, Masih Alinejad‎. In May 2014, she launched a Facebook page called, “The Stealthy Freedom of Women in Iran,” where she called on Iranian women to document themselves without a hijab and share their pictures on Facebook. In less than two months, the Facebook page accumulated close to 500,000 “likes,” and thousands of Iranian women uploaded photographs of themselves in public places with their heads uncovered.[7]

The opposition of the religious establishment has so far prevented a significant improvement in the legal status of Iranian women. However, support for women’s struggle, both in cyberspace and beyond, has not escaped the attention of senior officials in the government and religious establishment. President Rouhani’s support for reducing the enforcement of the Islamic dress code attests to the authorities’ recognition of the growing gap in social and cultural issues between the religious establishment and the public. Even if this recognition is not immediately translated into legislative changes, the discourse on SNS increases the authorities’ awareness of the social and cultural shifts taking place in Iranian society, especially among young people, which obligate them to reevaluate their policy towards women. As a result, SNS have become a window through which the processes of social change taking place in Iran are filtered, and form a lever pushing the authorities to adjust their policies accordingly.