Written by Gillian

The Hijab and Where Iran is Headed Edit

The hijab, a Muslim headscarf worn by women and girls to show modesty, first appeared in Assyrian text in 1400 B.C.  In that period, it was worn exclusively by upper class women; prostitutes and women of the lower class were not allowed to wear it. The veil became a symbol of social status in the 16th century, and Muslims have embraced the veil as a cultural practice, rather than a religious one, since the 19th century. The hijab’s place in Iran has changed dramatically over the 20th century, from being banned in 1936 to being compulsory in 1979, a time of rapid change that was described in the graphic novel Persepolis. Today, the wearing of the hijab is strongly encouraged by Iranian law, and while some embrace this, many Iranian women see the hijab as a form of government oppression. In many ways, the hijab has become a symbol of the changing relationship between the people and government of Iran.

After becoming Shah (king) of Iran in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi introduced many social, economic, and political reforms. Wearing of hijab was a widespread custom among Iranian women at the time, but the Shah saw this practice as incompatible with his ambition of modernizing Iran, so he banned the practice in 1936.  After that time, if a woman was seen wearing the hijab in public, she could be arrested and it would be forcibly removed. Though this strict policy was relaxed in 1941, wearing the hijab was still frowned upon and could be a hindrance to climbing the social ladder.

The place of the hijab in Iranian society changed dramatically following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, after which Ayatollah Khomeini became leader. Soon after coming to power, Khomeini launched the “Cultural Revolution”. Westernized culture was purged in favor of traditional islamic cultural elements. For example, girls and boys were separated at school, and girls were forced to wear the hijab. This period of time is depicted in the graphic novel Persepolis, a true story about a girl named Marjane Satrapi. In the opening scene, Marjane is veiled and looking miserable. Marjane’s family is liberal and opposed to the revolution, so the reader experiences Marjane’s world of secret parties and violent demonstrations against the Islamic Regime. This is a turbulent time in Iran, filled with aggressive unrest including many executions, and eventually, war with Iraq and the ensuing bombings. In Persepolis, Marjane has an experience where she was wearing her hijab, but it wasn’t covering her whole head. As a result, she was roughed up by the Guardians of the Revolution and was almost imprisoned, but she lied and got out of it. Here, the hijab was a symbol of the government’s relationship with the people of Iran. If you don’t behave in just the right way, the government will aggressively step in to get you back in line.

The Islamic Republic put in place in 1980 exists to this day. The epilogue of the packet we read in History, Iran Through the Looking Glass, portrays unrest following the presidential election in Iran in 2009. In this election, Ahmadinejad, a conservative, won a second term, which shocked people because it was expected that Moussavi, the Reformist candidate, would win. It was believed that Ahmadinejad and ruling clerics had stolen the election by falsifying the vote count. Following the election, there were huge protests in Tehran. In 2011 and 2012, demonstrations took place in Iran and across the Middle East to protest human rights violations, lack of freedom of speech, and hijab rules. Often the Iranian government cracked down on citizens for demonstrating and other offenses. More recently, in October 2014, there were acid attacks on women in Isfahan, supposedly because they were not properly veiled.

There have been a number of reforms in Iran recently.  For example, schools are integrated again, with boys and girls together. But many of the dictatorial aspects of the Islamic Regime remain. Today, women and girls are still required to wear hijabs in public places covering the majority of their hair, and the result of a “bad hijab” is 60 days in prison or 70 lashes. So the hijab remains a lasting symbol of the relationship between the Iranian government and its people -- where the government asserts its control over citizens at the most basic levels, including what they wear. There have been reports of increasing torturing and executions, including of juvenile offenders. It will be interesting to see if the recent protests are perhaps a sign of changes to come.