Is Woman-Life-Freedom on Pause?A dispatch from Tehran, where an eerie calm has fallen after the storm of the feminist uprising.
Translated from the Persian by Salar Abdoh.
In the heart of Tehran, on Revolution Avenue and a stone’s throw away from the University of Tehran, there is an electric substation that came to be set apart from all other similar substations almost exactly five years ago. A box has that has a lot to do with the upheavals that have beset Iran of late. On December 27, 2017, a young woman named Vida Movahed climbed up the large gray gadget, took off her white hijab, stuck it on a wooden stick and waved it in the air as a sign of protest against having to wear a hijab at all. She drew an immediate crowd, and in under ten minutes was arrested by security officers and taken away.
“The Girl of Revolution Avenue” was what Movahed came to be known as. In court, she was given a year’s imprisonment for her act of defiance. A few days after her arrest, workers from the national power company were sent to solder a triangular metal piece on top of the rectangular box so that no other woman would be tempted to climb up there and become the next girl of Revolution Avenue. It was a band-aid solution to a deep socio-political divide within the country.
Five years on, if you were to stand at the counter inside the France Pastry Shop, one of Tehran’s oldest cafés, and look outside at the substation that Movahed climbed up, the very first thing you’d notice is that a significant number of women who pass by are not wearing any hijab at all.
By now, the world knows the story of Mahsa Amini, whose death, following her arrest by the Morality Police in September 2022, was the spark that prompted Iran’s Z Generation to take to the streets in a way that caught the entire country off-guard. In the months that have followed, much has been written and discussed, especially outside Iran, about a momentous reckoning in the life of the Islamic Republic. There is an element of wishful thinking here (as often happens in regard to Iran), but one also inspired from some truth. Iran is a complicated nation, the joke in Tehran being that every six months this sprawling plateau of so many identities and languages transforms into a different country.
Yet the Islamic Republic endures.
The change in recent months is certainly acute. A walk in the capital will reveal that a significant portion of the female population continues to wear hijab and does so willingly and even with insistence. However, a distinctly visible number of women also stroll the streets of the city without a shred of hijab. This is something unprecedented in the life of the Islamic Republic. Women with a variety of hairstyles and colors boldly go about their business without revealing, at least on the surface, any fear of the security forces that often line the corners of the major thoroughfares.
The Woman-Life-Freedom movement that evolved after Amini’s death, and the appearance of hijab-less women on the streets of Iran, is not unlike a sprint relay, wherein the baton was initially passed on the day Movahed climbed up the substation. A lot of the women whose basic motto now is “a normal life” do not necessarily know what happened on Revolution Avenue five years ago – and how fateful its occurrence turned out to be. The same goes for the young men who go out of their way to show their solidarity by smiling broadly at the hijab-less women and waving victory signs. In the busy 7th-Tir Square in the heart of the city, a young woman without hijab succinctly expresses her take on the situation, “I want to dress freely. My mother hardly ever lets her hijab down, but I’m not my mother. It’s these differences and the respect for diversity that make life beautiful.”
Yet on the other side of the equation is over forty years of a red line which the Islamic Republic has considered an ideological foundation: losing the hijab fight is considered by many within the regime as synonymous with surrendering, and surrender has never been a part of the Islamic Republic’s playbook. But what to do with the reality of so many young women in towns large and small across Iran dispensing with the hijab? One strategic option—the one that the regime seems to have adopted for the time being—is to do nothing. Young women (but not just the young) walking about town and passing right in front of security police, which make no effort to arrest them, is a scene that would have been unimaginable in this country half a year ago. And while in Friday prayers and other platforms connected to conservative factions, the cry for dealing harshly with hijab-less women continues unabated, the strategic move from the highest echelons of power appears to be a tacit endorsement of the maxim “live and let live.”
The flagbearers of the movement, high school and college-age young women and men, paid a heavy toll during the earlier street confrontations with the security apparatus. More recently, prison terms and a handful of summary executions (not to mention the winter chill) have brought a hiatus, for now, to the streets of Tehran and other cities. [The connotation is dual; on the one hand the authorities have laid off bothering folk on the street, on the other hand incarcerations and executions from the time of the violent demonstrations have subdued the population from wanting to go out there again. The live-and-let-live basically says this: Do what you want, as long as you don’t go out there and start demonstrating and turning violent toward the regime itself again, like you did in the fall. We don’t care if you don’t wear hijab, or we’ll pretend for now not to care. This approach of theirs is not really at variance with how a dictatorship operates. It’s a version of sticks and carrots. —TRANS.]
While the streets are quiet, the youth are still busy in the virtual world, and Iran’s Generation Z is as internet-savvy as youth anywhere. The regime’s filtering of the virtual world and controlling the flow of traffic may slow down internet access, but it cannot stop it altogether. A teacher at a Tehran girls’ school admits, “My students stand up in the middle of class and yell that they have no appetite for following the lesson plan; they want to talk about the problems the country faces. These kids are angry.”
“Taking off my hijab is the least thing I can do,” a young woman who has gone without a headscarf for the past three months says. She continues:
The government has to understand that even guns won’t force a piece of cloth on women’s heads anymore. If one day I have to go back to wearing hijab, I’ll have betrayed Mahsa and all the others who’ve already died for us. Every day, I spend hours on YouTube and other sites. I see what’s going on outside this country. Why should there be such a divide between us and the rest of the world? Why does the government have to control our private lives? Why are Iranians so poor when our country has so much natural wealth?
It’s a little past 12 p.m. on Revolution Avenue, a weekday. I decide to spend half an hour inside France Pastry Shop, which is more than enough to get a sense of the women who pass by the celebrated substation. In the thirty-minute interval, 61 women pass. 32 of them wear zero hijab. 16 wear their headcovers reluctantly, the hair easily showing. 13 either wear a full chador or the maqnaa often worn by women in government offices and schools. Inside the café, the numbers are similarly telling — several college-age women wearing no hijab are busy ordering hot drinks and pastries. Leaning on the café’s window, a young couple stares out at the sidewalk. The young woman, hijab-less, points to the platform and says, “You know, right there’s where Vida took her hijab off for the first time ever and waved it on a pole.” As if on cue, at that moment a big black van accompanied by a force of 20 motorcycles belonging to the special anti-riot police pass the spot on Revolution Avenue.
Nowadays, Tehran’s streets are relatively calm—despite the exaggerated and often out-of-context claims of imminent revolution that opposition television channels tiresomely beam into the country. As Generation Z citizens will tell you, “Woman-Life-Freedom is on pause right now.” They liken the movement to an active volcano that erupts now and then, but whose eruptions are far short of the major one that is expected to happen someday. One of them says, “We’re the embers under the smoldering ash; any day, we could catch on fire. The regime and its shock troops need to get it through their heads once and for all that nothing will go back to what it once was in Iran.”
Interestingly, the regime and its young people may have the same objective in mind: not going back to what once was. Why else would the appearance of hijab-less women have become such a casual affair here? One could make the argument that, rather than a volcano waiting on the big eruption, the Islamic Republic — after more than four decades of practice — has not necessarily perfected, but rather learned the art of allowing for seismic activity (sometimes even tectonic in scale) in order to pre-empt something of far larger magnitude.
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