Protests in Iran continue to gain momentum and global support. In this blog, Mahsa Ghaffari writes that women in Iran have been living a plurality of religious and cultural expressions in their daily lives — now, this unique and pioneering generation are leading a widespread social movement.
I am an Iranian expat and a millennial, born after the 1979 Islamic revolution. I am able to see the different lifestyle we are experiencing in Iran more clearly. Unbeknown to those outside of Iran, Iranian women experience plurality in their daily lives.
Within their secure places – homes, cars, on holiday – women are empowered, while in public spaces they must abide by the Islamic rules dictated to them by the government. One of these rules concerns wearing head scarves – or hijab – to cover their hair. In Iran, it has always been used as a political tool rather than being viewed merely as a garment or religious practice. During the times of the Zoroastrians, hijab was a way of covering hair to show religiosity but also as a symbol of respect and modesty. Iran has previously experienced 2,500 years of monarchy with varying rules and regulations, from constitutional monarchy in 1906 to autocracy during 1925-1941, and again a revival of constitutional monarchy by having active parliamentary democracy during 1941-1953. Gradually, however, autocracy was back by 1970s, then in 1979 the monarchy system ended with the victory of the Islamic republic of Iran.
Back in 1936, when the social reformist monarch Reza Khan reigned, he banned hijab and women were forced to unveil as a symbol of modernisation. His actions followed Ataturk (his counterpart in Turkey) who was trying to implement secularisation. However, Reza Khan omitted to consider the cultural relevance of the veil and when he was succeeded by his son, hijab became optional, making wearing a veil a democratic decision.
The 1979 Islamic revolution was ignited by modern Islamic clerics, such as Shariati, who encouraged people to question Islam and suggested that individual interpretations of the scripture should be allowed, giving them some level of autonomy to exercise their wills. However, later in 1983, hijab became compulsory, and restrictions for women became entrenched, such as, women could not attend universities, offices, nor public places without wearing a head covering. This led many in Iranian society to demonstrate. These demonstrations were quickly extinguished by the government. Since that time, Iranian women have been living a plurality of lifestyles. When indoors, they exercise freedom in what they wear, eat, and drink. However, when outside they must follow the Islamic laws including hijab, and not drinking alcohol or eating pork.
This duality of living has been passed from generation to generation, to millennials and now to gen-Z. The latter generation has been raised on the internet and social media, so in this sense has not been restricted by geographical boundaries. They are largely not accepting of the constraints put upon them by the government when outside among others. This pioneering generation believes in reaching for their dreams, and a lifestyle of one reality.
However, in summer 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, was killed by the morality police in Iran for not having a “proper” hijab and young people came to the streets to show their disgust at such treatment, and their resentment for being forced to follow so-called Islamic rules dictated by this regime.
But how did this revolutionary movement become so widespread?
Firstly, gender inequality is a hot topic around the globe. Women in developed and developing countries are fighting for their equal rights. For instance, through the #MeToo movement, Western celebrities are becoming vocal, exposing the harassment they faced by their spouses or filmmakers just because they are females and universities are following Athena Swan accreditations to advance gender equality at work. Gender inequality has united people and motivated movements in different contexts worldwide.
Secondly, globally speaking, gen-Z women in Iran can be categorised as a vulnerable group. This makes this movement unique to the extent that world leaders show their solidarity and intention to support Iranian women. Collectively, we usually sympathise with a vulnerable person’s situation, such as disfigurement, as we feel for the challenges they have experienced. Similarly, in this current wave of revolution, the built-up frustrations from unequal treatment of Iranian women whose free will is suppressed in deciding what to wear is galvanising a social movement.
Having vulnerable groups who are in fact young protesters as the leaders of this revolution intensifies global empathy. In addition, the young protesters use peaceful ways to exert their civil disobedience to claim their rights and identify their revolutionary acts as unique. More than two months on, Iranian women can already claim a small victory in revealing to outsiders the difference between the Islamic clerics who govern the country and young people, who are exercising their autonomy rather than following draconian rules on what to wear.
Researchers at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Mahsa Ghaffari, Dr Judith Fletcher-Brown, and Dr Karen Middleton are using this unusual civil movement to research the agency of young people to change society during a critical point in the history of Iran. Drawing upon institutional theory and the literature on microprocess of change, the aim is to understand how young protesters disrupt, maintain, or create institutions to induce change.