After the 1979 revolution in Iran, women have been forced to wear the hijab in public. Back then, more than 100,000 women and men took to the streets to protest against the law and opposition to it has never gone away. In 2018, 112 women were arrested in Iran for defending women’s rights, many for peacefully protesting against Iran’s mandatory hijab law.
In 2017, after the reelection of President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad announced the White Wednesdays movement, inviting Iranian women to wear white headscarves on Wednesdays to protest the compulsory hijab laws in Iran. IOHR spoke to the founder, who has gained over two million followers.
Masih Alinejad told IOHR that she picked white as it is the universal colour of peace and Wednesdays because that was a day when she was free. The campaign has attracted a considerable following – more than 200 videos were sent to Masih in the first two weeks, some of which already had over 500,000 views at that time.
As to why she is protesting against the mandatory hijab law, Masih said that by forcing women to wear hijab “we have to carry the most visible symbol of an oppressive regime on our bodies. That is why I strongly believe that when I am protesting against compulsory hijab, it is the first step towards full equality. […] We won’t have real democracy in Iran while women are not free to choose their own dress code”
She also emphasised that the hashtag has become so much more than an online movement.
“It’s not an online movement anymore. People are taking to the streets, walking unveiled which is a punishable crime, and men are joining them,” she told IOHR. “It has become the most prominent civil disobedience movement.”
IOHR interviewed Shaparak Shajarizadeh, who is living in self-exile in Toronto after being sentenced to two years in prison in addition to an 18-year suspended prison term after peacefully waving her white hijab from a stick in Iran. She emphasised the feeling of freedom she felt when she was not wearing the hijab.
“We were free, but were also realising, in that moment, the meaning of freedom,” she said.
Shaparak also noted how unsafe her and other women feel in Iran, describing it as a “war zone”. “In Iran, seeing a police officer means to be alert,” she said. “It means fear.”
In addition, she spoke of the hugely important role social media plays and the significant impact Masih’s campaigns has on women. “People all around the world can now see what the situation is like for Iranian women.”
Iran’s mandatory hijab law
Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian women were free to wear whatever they wanted, but this changed when the late Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Women were not only forced to cover their hair in line with a strict interpretation of Islamic law on modesty, but also to stop using make-up and start wearing knee-length manteaus.
It became mandatory for women to wear the hijab with a law that forced all women in Iran, regardless of their religious beliefs, to dress in accordance with Islamic teachings. The hijab became a tool for implementing the government’s strict religious ideology. More than 100,000 women and men took to the streets to protest against the law in 1979, and opposition to it has never gone away.
Five years ago, Masih Alinejad took a photo of herself driving without the hijab and posted it on social media. The photo and message went viral and that unexpected outpouring of support launched a movement: first, a Facebook page branded as “My Stealthy Freedom” that invited women to post images of themselves without hijab and encouraged freedom of expression; within a month, the page had nearly 500,000 likes. That was followed in 2017 by a hashtag campaign – #WhiteWednesdays – encouraging women to wear white scarves on Wednesdays to protest laws requiring hijab.
“I’m so pumped up to be in this campaign,” one contributor to the campaign said in a video as she walks down a main road. “I want to talk to you of my imprisonment… they imposed hijab on me since I was seven,” she said, shaking her headscarf loose, “while I never felt committed to it and won’t be.”
2017 – 2018 protests
Today, Masih has more than two million followers and the movement has become a force for the Iranian government to reckon with. Last year, in December 2017, on the eve of protests over economic issues that briefly convulsed Iran, a 31 year-old mother named Vida Movahed stood atop a utility box on a busy street named for the country’s 1979 revolution, silently waving her white hijab like a flag. #WhiteWednesdays is thought to have been an inspiration for Vida’s move to completely remove her headscarf in December.
Vida was arrested an hour later, but before she was incarcerated, Iranians captured her quiet rebellion on camera and shared it over social media, where it became one of the iconic images of the brief uprising. A few weeks later, Narges Hosseini climbed upon the same utility box and repeated Vida’s protests, and over the course of the following months, dozens of Iranian women followed their lead, their images shared under the hashtags #White Wednesdays and #Girlsof RevolutionStreet.
In the months that followed, authorities have arrested more than 35 women on charges such as “a sinful act” and “inciting corruption and prostitution;” some have reportedly been tortured and beaten while in custody. Shaparak Shajarizadeh, a 42-year-old who peacefully waved her white hijab from a stick in December, was sentenced to two years in prison in addition to an 18-year suspended prison term.
The renowned human rights lawyer who has defended several of the women, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was sentenced on 11 March 2019 to a total of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. She was charged with several national security-related offences, all of which she denies. Nasrin, laureate of the Sakharov Prize in 2012, was convicted following a trial held in absentia which also featured a number of other violations of the right to due process.
An outspoken human rights advocate, Nasrin previously served three years in prison from 2010-2013 and was released after years of campaigning for her freedom by international human rights organizations. She was re-imprisoned in June 2018 after defending women who were arrested for protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law. In January 2019, her husband Reza Khandan was also sentenced to six years in prison.
In her interview with IOHR, Masih said: “I’m not going to lose hope. When I see these brave women, these fearless women, […] I strongly believe they can bring change to society.”