– Cynthia Alcott
In Iran women are cutting off their hair and setting small fires in the streets to ignite their headscarves like cigarettes. Hijab, the compulsory Islamic veil, is a symbol of chasteness enforced by the “morality police,” a state-enabled vice squad that arrests women for improper dress.
Nonviolent protesters are being met with automatic rifles and guns to the head. Thousands of arrests and interrogations are reported and deaths total more than 100 as the regime tries to disconnect 80 million Iranians from the internet so outside support will be lost and the world can’t watch.
This is the first human rights revolt led by Iranian women in years, instigated by the September 18 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was in the custody of morality police. Amini was pulled from the street in Tehran three days earlier for wearing her hajib too loosely, revealing a few strands of hair. Police said they took her to a “re-education center for lessons in modesty.”
It’s different. Women and Gen Z are visibly in charge at the front lines, leading massive demonstrations of men and women from all age groups and walks of life in more than 80 cities. The New York Times words it: [Iranian women are] “supplying defining images of defiance.”
The one thing in Iran’s favor, researchers say, is women at the forefront, a departure that raises the odds of success by a long shot. The headscarf is just a tipping point for broader social and economic demands. Iranian women have been planning this for decades.
“For the Islamic Republic, hijab is a tool to control women and through women to control the whole society. For them compulsory hijab is like the Berlin wall,” said journalist/activist Masih Alinejad in an interview where she swiped through cellphone pictures of three women shot in the head since Masah’s death. “If we take down the wall…”
The Persian word for crackdown is sarkoob, literally, “the pounding of the head.” Islamic law (sharia) encourages it, the misogynistic legal system that until recently sentenced women to death by stoning for the mere rumor of infidelity. Most Iranian woman report that they or their friends have been scolded, threatened or arrested by the morality police at least once.
“We want to show them that we don’t care about their standards, their definition of beauty or what they think that we should look like,” said 36-year-old Faezeh Afshan, an Iranian chemical engineer living in Italy, who was videoed live shaving her head. “It is to show that we are angry.”
In Persian literature, she told CNN, “cutting the hair is a symbol of mourning, and sometimes a symbol of protesting. If we can cut our hair to show that we are angry… we will do it.”
“Women cutting their hair is an ancient Persian tradition when the fury is stronger than the power of the oppressor,” Wales-based writer/translator Shara Atashi tweeted on September 21. “The moment we have been waiting for has come. Politics fueled by poetry.”
Government officials say the violent crackdowns will worsen but protesters say they will stay in the streets. If their demands are not met, they won’t stop protesting and they won’t go back to the past again.
Find an Iranian protester on social media and stay in contact. Find out how we can encourage solidarity from a place of freedom.
To help out, please donate whatever you can:
- Abdorrahman Boroumand Center promotes human rights through truth-telling, memory, education and accountability in Iran. The foundation is the 2009 recipient of the Lech Walèsa Prize for humans rights activists.
- Human Rights Activists News Agency is the press association of the nonprofit organization Human Rights Activists in Iran.
- Center for Human Rights in Iran is a nonpartisan and independent organization documenting rights violations and amplifying voices in Iran since 2008.
Cynthia Alcott is a freelance writer contributing to A Case for Women.