Growing Up As a Girl in Iran, Fashion Was Always a Form of Protest
As more and more Iranian women pull off their headscarves in protest of the compulsory hijab law, one writer recalls how, for her and other Iranian women, clothing and rebellion have long been intertwined.
Iranian women in the streets during a May 1st demonstration in 1979. Image by Broadly. Source photo by Christine Spengler via Getty Images.
In 1979, the year I turned six years old, the women of Iran lost the rights to sing and ride a bicycle in public. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini had taken over the country and implemented the strictest interpretation of Sharia law. That meant women’s rights were cut in half: Female heirs would inherit half the amount of male heirs, and two female witnesses became equal to one male witness. Women judges were stripped of their positions. Hijabs became compulsory for all women. Buses became segregated by gender, so women had to sit in the back—veiled, sweaty, and crammed together just because they were cursed with two X chromosomes.
Since then, some of these modesty laws have loosened, but headscarves are still mandatory. In May of 2017, US-based journalist and activist Masih Alinejad started White Wednesdays, a weekly invitation to Iranian women to protest the compulsory law by wearing a white headscarf or taking theirs off. Although it’s been going on for nearly a year, the campaign has gained new momentum in the past few weeks.
On December 27 of last year, a 31-year-old Iranian woman named Vida Mohaved climbed on top of a telecom box on a busy corner of Enghelab street in Tehran. With her white headscarf tied it to a stick, she waved it in the air in protest. She was arrested shortly after, but photos of her shared on social media have inspired others to do the same. Another woman, Narges Hosseini, was arrested on January 29 for mimicking her demonstration, this time with a bright red hijab. She is being held on a $135,000 bail. Rather than dissuading activists, though, Hosseini’s arrest fueled an unprecedented wave of similar protests resulting in the arrest of at least 29 other women and has spread to other cities including Shiraz and Isfahan. Men and women in full chador have joined in, waving symbolic headscarves. Some protestors have even begun burning their hijabs.
It feels like we've reached a turning point in protests against modesty laws. But still, the latest protests are part of a long history of resistance for women in Iran. The moment the modesty laws were imposed in 1979, women from different backgrounds—both those who rejected the practice and those who wore hijabs but didn’t believe it should be mandated—banded together and organized. On March 8, more than 100,000 people took to the streets in the Iranian capital. But that was the last time women marched with their heads uncovered. It was too dangerous after that.
Even though I was barely old enough to understand them, the new laws made me tremble with rage. Refusing to accept my fate as a woman, I used my short haircut to pretend to be a boy. I wanted to have the same rights as my male best friend. For a short time, dressed in boy’s clothing, I enjoyed life as I had before the revolution. But soon I began being recognized, and was forced to stop.
These “gender laws” were sometimes unclear, and the punishments seemed random—ranging from fines to stoning—and designed to strike terror. There were schoolyard rumors that women who wore lipstick had their lips cut by razors, but I never met anyone who was forced to endure that.
My friend’s younger sister was whipped by the Morality Police for wearing a skirt in public. She was small when it happened, around the age of five, and was traumatized for years. At the time, half of my sister’s classmates were in prison for newly criminal activities like possessing anti-revolutionary literature and expressing defiant views. My sister’s classmate was arrested and executed without trial, which was not uncommon. She was 16.
Sometime later, my dad ran into the slain girl’s father and asked why she was executed. The man shook his head and said, “They never told us.”
Laughing and running, along with many other everyday activities, were deemed immodest for women and punishable by law. Like most of my peers, I knew something was very wrong. Nevertheless, I pursed my lips whenever laughter gathered in my throat and forced myself to walk when my feet begged me to run.
About a year after the regime change, Iran became embroiled in a bloody war with Iraq, one that would end up killing a million people. I woke up every morning terrified of being bombed. Early death felt like a lottery into which all of my friends and I had been entered against our wills.
My life was haunted by fear. I was afraid of being targeted by the Morality Police. I was afraid of encountering a body hanging from scaffolding on my way to school. Most of all, though, I was afraid of not even knowing what fate I should be living in fear of.
As I grew into my early teen years, like many other adolescent girls, I defied the strict Islamic laws by rebelling the best I could. Some of us became proficient at making Molotov cocktails, while others snuck out at night to write anti-regime rhetoric on walls—both crimes punishable by death.
In the daylight, though, fashion was our common secret weapon. Not only did the new laws restrict what we could wear, they even dictated the colors of our baggy, shapeless clothes. (To make light of it, we joked that the regime wanted us to look like penguins.) So, we sometimes rolled up our pants to show colorful socks or pulled up our sleeves to bare our wrists, but most commonly we pulled back our scarves to reveal our hair. If we had bangs, we’d tuck a finger beneath our head cover and coax them out.
The amount of hair shown varied according to how brave we felt. Sometimes I let loose a few strands. Other times I pulled my scarf halfway towards the back of my head, until it threatened to fall off completely.
We developed quick reflexes. If we spotted Morality Police patrol vehicles or encountered conservative-looking folks who glared at us, we adjusted the hijab lightning-quick. No matter how many horror stories of arrests and subsequent rapes we heard, we didn’t stop resisting. Our behavior may have been intensified by the stubbornness and sense of invincibility all teens feel. But mostly, we were sick of living our lives in oppression.
In Iran, women who make fashion statements break the law and risk their lives. They use fashion as a form of resistance.
Due to the tireless work of Iranian women's right activists, restrictions have somewhat loosened in the past decade or so. Women wear bright colors and embroidered fabrics, taking advantage of the slight leeway and flexibility that’s slowly been created around the laws in order to use their clothing as a form of creative expression. Some refuse to wear their hijab in their car, arguing that it’s their private property.
Increased defiance brings more crackdown by the government and harassment by self-righteous vigilantes. In the last several months, acid attacks on those who aren’t properly veiled have risen. These vigilante men target women who they consider immodest and throw acid in their faces, painfully disfiguring them for life. Even so, Iranian women remain undeterred in fighting for their equality.
Reflecting on the current plight of women in Iran from where I now live in the United States, I recall my throat tightening every time I tied a hijab knot under my chin. I recall the discomfort of a dark, heavy scarf on a hot day. I recall looking at boys in short sleeves with envy, and how unfair it felt that they had the choice of what to wear and I didn’t.
Of course, I respect women who choose to cover their hair. In 1936, before the conservative backlash, Reza Shah forced all the hijabi women to unveil in an attempt to modernize the country. My grandmother, who was fiercely opposed to this encroachment on her personal rights, wore a hat to hide her hair instead. And if I was alive then, I would have supported her decision to do so. It’s the ability to choose that’s important.
In the US, if you choose to make a fashion statement, you may get a second look or receive praise or derision. In Iran, women who make fashion statements break the law and risk their lives. They use fashion as a form of resistance.