White Wednesdays: The History of Women's Rights Movements in Iran

White Wednesdays: The History of Women's Rights Movements in Iran

White Wednesday is a women's rights movement against the law which forces women to wear the headscarf in Iran. By using the hashtag #whitewednesdays, citizens of Iran are taking a stance against the strict Sharia law enforced by the Iranian Islamic government. Women who do not abide by these laws can be arrested. Three decades after the Iranian revolution, a strict legacy continues to dominate federal dogma, leaving Iranian citizens desperate for change and the right of choice.

To understand the significance of the Veil in Iran you must go back to 16th century Persia:

Since the start of the 20th century, Iranian women have been subjected to veiling and unveiling decrees. In 1936, pro-western ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran issued a decree known as Kashf-e hijab which translates to 'unveiling.' The decree enforced that all forms of hijab, the veil and the chador must not be worn under any circumstances in public. The Iranian monarchy frequently travelled to Europe and strongly believed that the westernization of Iranian dress would be a positive step towards a modernized Iranian state. The decree itself was a violation of women’s rights; it literally stripped them of choice and in some ways threatened their cultural identity. The hijab has been a part of Persian identity from the onset of the Persian empire and the importance of Islamic Sharia law is rooted in the national pride of Iranian citizens, especially women of the time. The veil or hijab was a Persian norm that intertwined the religious and cultural significance that assimilated women into members of Iranian society. At the time the passing of the decree was seen as disregarding Iranian heritage, which led to the widespread assumption that the Shah was a puppet of western imperialism.

In relation to the rights of women, it was a reversal to what would be seen later in the 20th century. Women during the late 30s were forced to assimilate to the western standards perpetrated by the Shah; who were committed to enforcing a decree that subjected many women to the humiliation of unveiling in public against their will.

However, the issue with the unveiling decree was that it undermined women’s choice.

Fast forward to the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-79.) From a western perspective, the women rights movement under the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi regime had gained tremendous victories. However, the issue with the unveiling decree was that it undermined women’s choice. In turn, the decree led to a divide in the female population. After years of western assimilation, many working middle-class women in Iran decided to take a revolutionary stance by wearing the hijab. During the peak of the Islamic revolution women who did not wear the hijab were perceived as victims of ‘Westoxification’ or Gharbzadegi. The revolution reshaped the significance of the hijab moving away from traditional roots of Islam and modesty and becoming a symbol of western resistance and anti-Shah sentiments. Ultimately, the return of the veil was a stance against western influence in Iran.

So why is the hijab law perceived as a symbol of oppression today?

When women united, the hijab in itself was a symbolic rhetoric used against western imperialism that clouded the realm of women’s rights. The revolution was reactionary against the Shah and the diminishing of the class divisions and western influences. The succession of the revolution saw the fall of the monarchy, that paved the way for Khomeini to seize the position as ruler of Iran. Ruhollah Khomeini was a religious Shia scholar, the architect and face of the Iranian Revolution, who established the Islamic Republic of Iran. Under his supremacy, Khomeini cast a mandatory hijab law. The hijab was enforced onto the female population of Iran and the symbolic significance it held during the revolution vanished in the midst of the dominating and violent patriarchal regime.

It is not the actual hijab that is oppressive, more so the military enforcement and threat of imprisonment

So why is the hijab seen as “oppressive”?

It is not the actual hijab that is oppressive, more so the military enforcement and threat of imprisonment or even death that oppresses women in Iran. Under Khomeini, girls were given the right to education, that unintentionally paved the way for a feminist revolution in Iran. A new army of educated women recognised that the current regime is laced with the patriarchal dominance that has prohibited and punished them from exercising their basic rights. Nina Ansary, the author of Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran, said that 'the irony of Iran is what the Shah had wanted has come to fruition during a most unexpected era.'

Three decades after the revolution, Iranian women are taking a stance against the law to liberate women, in the hope of establishing the right of choice.

[Photo Credits: By Nina Ansary CC BY-SA 4.0]

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