The hijab is a political tool used by Islamic Republic of Iran to keep a strict grip on its population. Quranic sources recommend that women wear modest clothing, but there is no specific mention of the type of garment. Yet the hijab is presented as a religious precept, even though, de facto, it is a political instrument.
In a famous speech in the 1950s, Pan-Arabist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser spoke about his meeting with the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and about the latter's request to enforce the wearing of the hijab. "The first thing he asked was that wearing the hijab be made mandatory in Egypt and that every woman walking in the street be required to wear a scarf. Every woman walking!", Nasser said. This perfectly describes the age-old, openly-practiced strategy of political Islam.
The Hijab Dominates The Visual Space
On a personal note, back in 2007 I was visiting in Tunisia, which at the time was still under the rule of the secular autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The primary opposition and threat to his rule was represented not only by the democratic civil society, but mainly by the Islamists. During my visit, a Tunisian scholar explained to me that many young women had started to wear the hijab as an expression of opposition to Ben Ali's rule. He said that these women (many of whom came from families of Bourguiba supporters) had decided to wear hijabs as a political statement, in order to dominate the visual space – that is, every hijab seen in public was a clear and visible victory for the Islamists against the Ben Ali’s secular dictatorship, and against the very concept of secularism. ).
The same tactic is being employed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The hijab dominates the visual space as a symbol against secularization and westernization.
For over a year and a half, Iranians throughout Iran have been protesting the shortage of water, food, employment, and respect for human rights. Afraid of losing its control, the Iranian regime has decided to further strengthen its grip on the populace. This is why , Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi issued a decree last August about Iran's "hijab and chastity law", adding a list of new restrictions on to the Iranian dress code for women.
However, following the recent killing of Mahsa Amini, the young woman who was arrested and beaten to death by Iran's "morality police" for not wearing her hijab "properly," the demonstrations resurged throughout the country with increased intensity. Women in particular took to streets under the slogan "women, life, freedom," and they are courageously burning their hijabs, which they have been forced to wear since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and which are the most powerful political symbol of the Iranian regime.
Vida Movahedi, known as the "Girl of Enghelab Street," who went out in public without wearing a hijab in Tehran, in December 2017. (YouTube screenshot)
The Role Of Women Is Central
In a gesture that is the mirror-image of that made by the young women in Ben Ali's Tunisia, women in Iran are defying the ayatollahs by removing their headscarves.
Once hijabs are no longer seen on the streets – once Iran’s women clear the visual space of this symbol – it will become clear that the Islamic Republic, its ideology, and its messages are about to crumble. For these reasons, in this uprising against the regime, the role of women is central. Dictatorships cannot survive, at least not for long, without their symbols, and no Islamic political symbol is more potent, oppressive and identifiable as the hijab. Hence, once the Iranian women remove the hijab, a pillar of the dictatorship, the Islamic Republic will eventually collapse.
*Anna Mahjar-Barducci is a MEMRI Senior Research Fellow