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Iran’s sorrow, lessons for India

Updated on: 28 November,2022 07:50 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

Iran’s long history of fight to reclaim freedom and the recent show of solidarity by its soccer team at FIFA World Cup by maintaining silence as the national anthem played should be an inspiration for us

Iran’s sorrow, lessons for India

Iranian women enjoy in a park in the 1970s, before the Islamic Revolution. Pic/Twitter

Ajaz AshrafIran’s trouncing of Wales in the FIFA World Cup is less momentous than the silence of its soccer players as their country’s national anthem played before their opening match against England. A silence daring for its support for Iranian women waging a struggle against the State. A silence louder and more credible than Tehran’s claims that the West has conspired to foment the protest in Iran against the mandatory wearing of hijab.

The Islamic regime seems not to know its own people, for whenever Iranian women have been subjected to compulsory veiling or unveiling, they have risen to assert their rights, enduring batons and bullets, suffering imprisonment and death, as was the fate of Mahsa Amini. Arrested for breaching the dress code in September, Amini died days later, sparking the ongoing protests in the Islamic Republic.

Hijab, in ironical ways, has been the symbol of freedom and dissent in Iran. Poet Qurrat al-Ayn (1817-1852) was arrested for unveiling herself at a religious conference in 1848. Four years later, she was executed but not before she told her executioners, “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”

Eighty-four years later, in 1936, Iranian ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi issued the Kashf-e-hejab decree, proscribing women from veiling in public. The majority of women resented the police empowered to snatch away the chador the women would use to cover their body from head to toe, writes academician Faegheh Shirazi. Fines were slapped on the recalcitrant. Families pulled out girls from schools.

Reza Shah was compelled to abdicate, in 1941, in favour of his son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who decreed that women could decide whether to veil. Soon, with time, middle-class soirees would have both veiled and unveiled women, the latter category adopting the latest European fashion trends.

In the late 1970s, discontent brewed against the Shah’s authoritarianism, his failure to bridge the rich-poor divide, and the West’s influence over him as well as over its control of the country’s oil resources. Iranians took to the streets, regardless of whether they were Islamists, communists or liberals. The popular fury compelled the Shah to flee the country in January 1979. Weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile.

In March, Khomeini declared women must wear the hijab at the workplace. In response, 1,00,000 women took to the streets on March 8, the International Women’s Day, against Khomeini’s diktat, most without sporting the chador or hijab. Taken to the protest by her mother, Azadeh Tabazadeh, in her memoir The Sky Detective: How I fled Iran and Became a NASA Scientist, remembers seeing two women wearing headscarves and sporting a banner that read, “We are in hijab, our daughters are not. Let us be who God made us to be.”

Khomeini backtracked, only to reissue the contentious hijab order a year later. The government deployed Gasht-e-Ershaad, or morality police, to enforce the hijab code. They subjected women, spotted wearing the hijab improperly, to physical and verbal abuse. The state’s capacity to control citizens was now complete, with the Opposition comprising communists, liberal-leftists and moderate Islamists either executed or living in exile.

It took well over two decades for women to convene, in 2006, a conference for initiating what is called the One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality. Its goal was to seek annulment of laws discriminatory against women. Denied permission to hold the conference, the campaigners took to the streets to collect signatures. A crackdown was ordered on the leaders; the one-million mark remained elusive.

As time passed, a new generation emerged, as did technology conducive to undertaking subversive activities. Individual defiance increasingly became the norm, evident from the Justice for Iran, an NGO, reporting that more than 30,000 women were arrested between 2003 and 2013 for wearing the hijab improperly. In 2014, Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist settled in the US, initiated My Stealthy Freedom, an online movement, which asked women to post their photos without the hijab. The growing opposition to the hijab prompted then President Hassan Ruhani to quip, “You can’t send people to heaven by the whip.”

In 2017, a new campaign, White Wednesdays, asked people to wear white clothes and scarves every Wednesday. The women were supposed to remove the white headscarf, place it atop a stick and wave it silently. In December 2017, Vida Movahed, a 31-year-old Tehranian, did exactly that. Her photo went viral on social media, inspiring Iranian women to flood social media with pictures replicating Movahed’s defiance. In 2018, the Iranian Center for Strategic Studies, the President’s research arm, determined that 49 per cent of the country’s population opposed the compulsory hijab code.

The protest sparked by the death of Amini shows reclaiming freedom snatched away is an incremental, painful process. It should caution us Indians against Hindutva’s endeavour to replace the democratic, secular Republic with a Hindu Rashtra, and its growing emphasis now on what people should eat, read and who they should marry. The Iranian team’s protest should have our sporting icons deploy their popularity to condemn the politics of hate, which has already victimised cricketers like Wasim Jaffer, Mohammed Shami and Arshdeep Singh.

The writer is a senior journalist

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