A 23-year-old Iranian woman who refused to put on a headscarf was shot in the face by security forces with anti-riot pellets. A divorced mother who faced down police spent five nights in a communal jail cell with 32 other women. A healthcare worker who joined the demonstrations in Tehran fears she could lose her job.
Antigovernment protests have swept across Iran since September, in one of the most serious challenges to the country’s ruling clerics. Young women from across Iranian society have joined and often led the demonstrations, spurred by the death last month of a young woman in police custody for allegedly breaching the country’s strict rules on women’s dress.
They are taking extraordinary risks to voice pent-up anger at strict laws requiring headscarves in public and other restrictions imposed on them in the name of Islam. Their prominent role in the streets means that the staying power of the protests rests largely on women’s willingness to endure an intensifying crackdown by a government that seems determined to crush or at least outlast them.
A cross-section of women who have joined the Tehran protests and were interviewed by The Wall Street Journal describe themselves as deeply disillusioned with their lives under Iran’s theocratic system, especially with mandatory headscarves, known as the hijab, and the harassment they say they receive from Iran’s so-called morality police charged with enforcing the laws. But they are also weighing up the costs of continuing protests against the dangers they face.
Iranian officials have blamed the protests on foreign interference and have said little publicly about the role of women in the demonstrations, or about repealing the hijab law or other demands from protesters.
“Some people are either agents of the enemy, or if they are not agents, they are aligned with the enemy, and some are excited people,” Iran’s Supreme Leader
said Wednesday in remarks broadcast on Iranian state television.
One of those who joined the first night of demonstrations on Sept. 19 was a 31-year-old unmarried healthcare worker from south Tehran, angry at the disparities of everyday life in Iran, especially for women. She also participated in demonstrations in 2019 when fuel prices soared, but this time is different, she said.
“It’s more serious because we don’t see any future for us,” she said. “It’s not just about the scarf. It’s about the whole life they have built for us.”
She has participated in the unrest cautiously. She walked alone from her neighborhood to central Tehran, only removing her headscarf around other female and male protesters. She stayed in the back of the massive crowd, running away when police advanced. She slept that night at a relative’s residence, rather than risk being detained on her way home. She returned several more nights, and joined a protest two weeks ago in the city of Rasht, where she was visiting relatives.
However, she said she has stopped going to protests as the crackdown intensified, worried that if she is arrested she might lose her job.
A university graduate, she helps her aging parents pay their rent and buy food. The well-connected in wealthy north Tehran neighborhoods, she said, can live well despite the soaring inflation and international sanctions on Iran that have left her family struggling to survive.
Her father, a retired factory worker, and her mother, a former teacher, were supporters of the 1979 revolution that brought Iran’s ruling clerics to power. Now her parents apologize to her for the society the revolution has produced and worry for her future, urging her to emigrate, if possible, she said.
She didn’t tell them about joining the street protests, knowing it would make them frightened for her safety.
Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian-American author and professor at New York University who was in Tehran when the protests began, said she saw women of all ages in some neighborhoods without headscarves—young students on the backs of motorcycles and middle-aged women doing their shopping.
Such a display would have been unheard-of only weeks ago, but it is unclear whether the protests can force sweeping changes from a government that defends the hijab law as a fundamental pillar of its rule, Ms. Moaveni said.
“It can never go back to the way it was,” she said, referring to the heavy-handed enforcement of the mandatory hijab. “I think women’s behavior will have been transformed, but it’s hard to know what that will look like, because that’s not how the Islamic Republic operates.”
Younger women especially are defiant. A 23-year-old college graduate with short hair and nails painted bright pink said she was walking toward a Tehran protest site late afternoon last week without a headscarf, when security officers in riot gear ordered her to cover up. As she stared back without complying, she said, they opened fire with anti-riot pellets, leaving her bleeding from her lower lip.
When she shouted at them to stop, the officers laughed and shouted obscenities, firing again, she said. She stumbled away, still without a headscarf and went with friends to a hospital, giving a false name in the hope that authorities wouldn’t be able to identify her.
She was shot a second time the following day at close range by plainclothes police on motorcycles after one of them accused her of making a “sour face,” she said. Photos she shared show more than a dozen pellet wounds on her arms, back and left ear.
Previously, women wouldn’t talk back to the morality police if stopped on the streets, she said. “Now women are not frightened anymore.”
Not all women welcome the change. An elderly woman in a hijab stopped her last week and said she hoped the younger woman was raped by Islamic State for not covering her head in public. But she has continued to participate in demonstrations, calling her father after returning home to her Tehran apartment at night to tell him she is safe.
Meanwhile, an 18-year-old student in Tehran said she had protested day after day for two-and-a-half weeks, not telling her parents and managing to avoid being arrested. She had been detained by morality police in the past and held in a van while her sister was told to fetch her “proper clothing,” she said.
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“I personally don’t have a problem with the hijab as long as it is a free choice, but I don’t want to wear it,” she said, adding that her mother does cover her head in public. She isn’t optimistic that the unrest will lead to a lifting of the hijab law.
“Young people are fighting and old people are sitting back,” she said.
Protests led by women have been occurring in Iran as long as the Islamic clerics have been in power, said Mona Tajali, an expert on Iranian women’s political participation and a professor at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. Months after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the new government’s plans to require the hijab in public and other restrictions in the name of Islam brought hundreds of women onto Tehran’s streets in anger, she said. The hijab law was eventually instituted in 1983.
Since then, women have continued to campaign against the compulsory hijab and other restrictions, such as a ban on attending sporting events. But their gains have been limited and temporary, progressing when reformists and moderates have held Iran’s presidency and disappearing when hard-liners are in power, Ms. Tajali said.
For example, under reformist President
who was in office from 1997 to 2005, the morality police were more tightly controlled, leaving women freer to dress as they chose in public. Since hard-liner
was elected president in 2021, enforcement has grown stricter, she said.
She added that the latest protests have greater potential to force more-lasting changes in the hijab law and other concessions, because of the widespread participation of women.
A 32-year-old divorced woman said she protested for the first 10 days of demonstrations in Karaj, a city north of Tehran, surrounded by younger women and men who considered her an “old person.”
Her family advised her not to join, she recalled, telling her she should “learn from the mistakes of the 1979 revolution,” when people took to the streets to overthrow Iran’s monarchy but ended up with an even more repressive regime. But she was fed up after being warned many times, and arrested twice, for wearing her headscarf improperly, she said, adding that she had joined protests more than 10 years ago, too.
After 10 days on the streets, she was arrested along with 96 others, including 32 women, and held for five days until she was released on bail. She said she would continue opposing the government.
“Women alone cannot destroy this system,” she said. But “wherever there was any gathering, men stood side-by-side and I think in such a case this society can change this system.”
Write to David S. Cloud at [email protected]
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