The uprising in Iran is feminist. After all, feminism isn’t about putting women in power instead of men. It is about self-determination for all, men and women alike. And today’s protesters regard the enforced wearing of the hijab as a symbol of the state’s refusal to grant them self-determination.
This right covers much more than “just” the right to dress as you like; it means the 50% of Iranians whose first language isn’t Farsi being allowed to learn their first languages in schools; it means lesbians and gay men being able to freely express their sexual orientation; it means the Bahai being allowed to practice their religion — and so on.
The artist Shervin Hajipour’s song “Baraye” (meaning “for” or “because”), which has become a hymn of the uprising, summarises a series of Twitter posts in which protesters give their reasons for taking to the streets: for dancing in the street; for the girl who wishes she was born a boy; for freedom, freedom, freedom. And there may well be as many men as women currently demonstrating for these things. In this respect, too, the videos that are now going viral are probably giving us a skewed picture.
But the hijab is symbolic of all this, and that is why young girls are now tearing off their headscarves. Ironically, the hijab has been used as the ultimate symbol for systemic change in Iran once before, during the revolution that took place in 1978/79. And it looks like it might be again.
The hijab is tightly bound up with the history of emancipation in Iran, in the sense of liberation from a paternalistic state — and not just since 1978, the year of the last Iranian revolution of the 20th century: Reza Shah Pahlavi banned women from wearing it in 1936. Reza Shah, the Cossack general who rose to become an emperor, wanted to modernise his country in every way, even aesthetically — and he was prepared to take a sledgehammer approach to achieve this. And so Iranian women were banned by law from wearing a headscarf. The state itself tore the hijab from the heads of women in the street. And it is not only Iranian history that can be written in relation to the headscarf. It is also the ultimate symbol of this Iranian system. There are only three ideological pillars that make Iran an Islamic Republic. Two of them – the Iranian state doctrine and anti-Americanism – have been increasingly called into question since the late 1990s.
And then there is the hijab. It isn’t unfair of the West to associate the word “Iran” with the headscarf first and foremost. If Iran were to scrap this symbol, it would probably serve as sufficient evidence for the West that Iran was willing to reform. But that would be short-sighted.
For this reason, the Islamists will cling to this piece of fabric for as long as they possibly can. The feminist lawyer Mehrangiz Kar once made a compelling argument for why Islamic systems of rule usually begin with the oppression of women. “They’re choosing the weakest victims to create an atmosphere of fear. When fear rules, then everyone is afraid and the rulers can stabilise their power. It’s impossible to imagine half of the people living in fear and at the same time the population as a whole confidently grappling with political problems.”
For many people, this fear has now abated. The whole of the young generation is so fed up of being infantilised, disciplined and monitored that they are now hitting back when the regime’s henchmen start beating them. You can see this right now on the many videos being shared on social media, and it’s new.
In this struggle for self-determination, people are displaying a level of courage and cohesion we haven’t seen before. For that reason, what we are seeing now is feminist. And feminist foreign policy would mean supporting Iranians in this feminist aim to achieve self-determination in their lives.