This is the story of one Iranian woman who stopped wearing a headscarf in public as an act of protest. Despite Iran’s compulsory hijab laws and the fear of arrest, Pendar (not her real name), 51, together with two other women, has walked every Wednesday and Saturday for hours through Tehran’s crowded streets. As their confidence grew, these women stopped wearing hijab completely. Their quiet act of resistance began six months ago, after the death of Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa (Jina) Amini while in custody of Iran’s “morality” police. Her death ignited massive protests across the country, with people demanding an end to Iran’s repression. Security forces cracked down with violence, killing hundreds and arresting thousands.
By Nahid Naghshbandi
While today’s protests are smaller, people like Pendar still manage to communicate what they think. While authorities are attempting to penalize those are refusing to wear hijab, a significant number of women and teens, especially those who are college-aged, have stopped wearing hijab in major Iranian cities. In honor of International Women’s Day and the women of Iran, Pendar has told Human Rights Watch her story: why she’s doing this, and how people – from schoolchildren to the police – react when they see her. This is the story of one person’s everyday effort to stand up for her rights and contribute to a broader change people are fighting despite government crackdown.
In Pendar’s own words: “In September, we joined the protests every time local groups in Tehran called for a demonstration. In one of these protests, we went to Tajrish square [in the north of Tehran] and it was terrible, the security forces were shooting at everybody and were arresting people in such violent ways. That day, we realized the importance of hijab for the Islamic Republic. It was more than just putting a scarf on, we realized that hijab is the identity of Islamic Republic, so to speak. And we decided together that we will stop wearing it.
“We agreed on taking long walks without hijab on crowded main streets, where protests usually would happen. Saturdays and Wednesdays were, and still are, the days people would demonstrate in Tehran. Therefore, we chose these two days for our plan, so we could also join the protest if one was happening. It was very scary and difficult for us at the beginning, but we decided to do it anyways and accepted all its consequences. Sometimes we would pass by the special forces, and we were very afraid, but we kept going. At first the police would shout at us, telling us to put on our scarves, but slowly they got used to it and now they don’t even say anything.
“Little by little, we put the scarves aside. At first, we mostly tied them around our necks or across our shoulders, but by winter, we had taken them off. Sometimes when it was cold, we wore hats, but then we said to ourselves that in other countries a lot of people don’t wear hats in the cold, so we also stopped putting on hats in winter.
“This gradually became more accepted in the society [and] now I see many women going out on the streets with no hijab.
“A lot of my friends tell me that what we are doing is just a normal walk, that it is not effective or important, that if you want to make a change you need to be at the protests. I don’t compare this action with the people on the front line of the demonstrations, even though I have been a part of that group as well. I see the value of demonstrating, but I also believe in the beauty and importance of our walks. There is perseverance and resistance in this act. We have cancelled and changed all our plans for the last six months, we stopped working on Saturdays and Wednesday [they are their own bosses], and made it our priority. We walked for more than four hours each time with no hijab and without shouting slogans. This continuity is resistance and important.
“Now you see a lot of people without hijab. Especially when you go to neighborhoods near universities. The young women and students show their hair in all colors and cuts and wear stylish clothes that are obviously in opposition to the Islamic Republic’s norms. That’s how they fight resolutely and beautifully. There is also another group of women who are my age who are taking off their hijab.
“When we started our walks, a lot of people would look at us in surprise or we would get a lot of compliments. Schoolchildren would pass in their bus clapping and waving their hands for us. Now we get less of those. There are still people who look at us in disgust. My workplace is in a relatively religious neighborhood, and there are still some people, mostly religious women in chadors, who stare meanly and in disgust at me when they see me go to work like this, but I really don’t care.
“Once I even had to go to a mosque, and everyone told me to put on my scarf or they won’t let me inside, or if I go without covering myself properly it would be disrespectful. Although the mosque belonged to very religious people, I went without a scarf. Everyone looked at me in surprise, but nobody stopped me.
“The change in society is very visible, especially in women. This is partially because it’s beneficial for them, after 40 years of repression, that finally there might be a change and hope. I see parents my age trying to let their kids think and act more freely, and the parents with more awareness. The fact that they are trying is by itself valuable. This society is not the same as two years ago. Now when people come to my workplace, they see no one is wearing hijab. Some of them are amazed and have become more comfortable with us, and some even stop wearing hijab themselves. When I see I have this much effect, as small as it is, it makes me happy and satisfied. The fact that a person can have even a small impact is very valuable to me.”