A new wave of protests in Iran against the compulsory hijab for women began December 27, 2017, when 31-year-old mother Vida Movahed stood on a metal utility box on a busy street in Tehran and silently waved a white scarf tied to a stick to challenge the hijab requirement, in place in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Women in the capital and other cities have since followed her example, climbing atop utility boxes and waving head scarves in protest, and the videos and images have gone viral on social media.
On February 26 Amnesty International reported that more than 35 women had suffered violent attacks and arrest in Tehran alone since the campaign began, and that dozens of women are at risk of being punished with prison sentences.
RFE/RL Central Newsroom Senior Correspondent and editor of the award-winning Persian Letters blog Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to RFE/RL Pressroom about the significance of the protests and the courageous women behind them.
RFE/RL Pressroom: Women in Iran have protested the hijab rule before, but what stirred this most recent wave of dissent?
Golnaz Esfandiari: I think the recent protests are the continuation of years of opposition against the compulsory hijab, which violates the most basic rights of women and puts them at risk of harassment, detention, and other forms of punishment.
Pressroom: Do the protests represent a wider movement for women’s rights in Iran, or human rights or political rights more broadly?
Esfandiari: These are unprecedented acts of civil disobedience against one of the pillars and most visible symbols of the Islamic Republic. The protests have sparked a debate about the compulsory hijab, which has been a sensitive topic. These women have brought domestic and international attention to the issue of the hijab and made it harder for authorities to claim that the majority of Iranian women support the hijab rule. Even hijabi women have expressed solidarity with the women who are removing their scarves in public.
These women are sending a clear message: they want to have the right to decide about their appearance in public. It's a protest against four decades of discrimination and humiliation. They're standing up for their rights, knowing that they are likely to be arrested and sentenced to prison. We've received reports that some of them have been beaten up by the police. There's a video of one of them being violently confronted by a security officer. Her leg has been reportedly injured as a result of being pushed down from a utility box.
Pressroom: In Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press report, Iran scored 90 out of 100 points (100 being the least free.) How do you report on stories like this under such restrictive media conditions?
Esfandiari: I have been following these protests on social media where images and videos of the women removing their scarves have been posted and shared widely. We have been checking the sources and trying to verify the images and videos as best as we can. I've been in touch with Iran's leading human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who represents several of the women detained by the police. I've been in touch with some of the protesters and those who know them. I also monitor and follow the debate closely in Iranian media.
Pressroom: What does the future hold for women in Iran? Do you predict major changes in women’s status in the next five years?
Esfandiari: I hope the future brings Iranian women freedom and equality in all aspects of life. But they face a difficult road ahead in a country where the laws discriminate against women and some of the country's senior officials would rather see them sit at home, cook, and take care of kids.
Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and editor of the award-winning Persian Letters blog. She was previously chief editor of RFE/RL‘s Iranian Service, Radio Farda. Esfandiari has worked as a consultant on Iran with Freedom House, authoring several of their reports on human rights and press freedom in Iran. In 2013, she was tagged for the third year in a row in Foreign Policy's Top 100 Twitterati list.Contact Golnaz at @GEsfandiari or email@example.com.