What is the meaning of the hijab? To the women who wear them, they are personal symbols of voluntary faith and culture. In Iran, over the 20th and 21st century, there has been a fight between reformist and traditional governments over the role of the hijab. These conflicts stripped women of the freedom to express their Islamic religion and interests within society – provoking a united women’s rights movement that advocates for the power of choice in the country.
In 1962, Mohammad Reza Shah, initiated the “White Revolution,” promoting western ideals in Iran. One of the main focal points of the Revolution revolved around women’s role within society. He banned the practice of hijab in public. Women who still wore hijabs as part of their religious beliefs were forcefully unveiled and punished. According to the official policy, dressing women in the western style instead of the veil would alleviate the traditional roles women held, enabling them to self-define themselves within society. In reality, the hijab ban divided and limited women. Those who adopted the western style climbed the social ladder, while those from religious and conservative families remained behind.
A general rule in Islam requires women to dress modesty in public to prevent the fitna – transgression of extramaritial temptation. The hijab is not the only accepted form of dress in Islam, but the censure of choice invoked Iranian women to resist the government. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, reformists, traditionalists, and egalitarian groups rallied against the Shah in the Iranian Revolution (1978-1979). They abolished the monarchy and replaced it with theological leadership that had promised to determine women as equal citizens, protect their interests, provide them with the choice of wearing the hijab, and of bodily autonomy. The optional forms of dress after the revolution was a moment of celebration for women of religious families, who could finally rejoin society.
In 1983, the new government’s compromise was nullified in one of Khomeini’s speeches, which called on women to wear proper hijabs at work. A few days later, on International Women’s Day, thousands of women marched in Tehran and other regions of the country to protest the new discriminatory laws. This included the reincorporation of marital shari’a law, produced by the new Islamic Republic. Protestors demanded the right to dress with autonomy, and for the implementation of laws protecting female interests in the case of divorce. Although the government verbally conceded to the protestor’s desires, by the end of the year, hijabs became compulsory for all women.
Before the White Revolution, shari’a law governed marital contracts. It enabled men to enter polygimous relationships and divorce without a court hearing, and child custody was handed to the father or else the paternal line. Under the old law, divorced women could not receive financial protection. In 1967, the Shah passed the Family Protections Law, taking the first steps toward equally-balanced marriage. It eliminated marital shari’a tradition, forced divorce proceedings into court, and established that the more competent parent would gain child custody. Soon after the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini reversed the law. Polygamy and temporary marriage became legal again. The new law’s concession, however, diverted divorce cases to special courts designed to deal with divorce, custody, and inheritance. As a part of the staff, female legal professionals with theological backgrounds participated in the rulings to provide a unique perspective. These trials usually ended in the favor of the man, and custody would still only fall to them, but women were allowed to hold their children until they turned seven. In 1987, the government enacted a health and welfare law for “unprotected women” (widows and divorcees), promoting female self-sufficiency through state-aid.
As Iran increases it’s international involvement, it has ratified multiple human right treaties, such as the Social and Cultural Rights Convention, and the Convention on the Rights of the Children. Yet, Iran remains on questionable ground as the scope of the situations, and persons these treaties protect remain ambiguous. For instance, the marriage of girls from the age of thirteen is permitted, and girls from ages nine to thirteen can marry provided judicial and paternal consent, even though childhood marriage is considered a threat to liberty. It forces many children into dangerous environments where they are forced to give up their education and future careers, and even experience domestic abuse. The notion of female inferiority permutes in all institutions, further cemented by Iran’s refusal to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Without ensuring gender-equality, at least half of the population will not claim the rights and justice granted to them by other conventions.
Although the path to an Iranian egalitarian society is not clear, Iranian women’s continual refusal for silent obedience has gained them social and political ground on which to stand. Regulations on the hijab called them to arms, and became the symbol on which the women’s rights movement stands. They fight not only for liberty of dress, but for autonomy within government, education, marriage, and religion.
Thank you to Fatima Ezzahra Tajani for her meaningful inputs and review of this article.