“Once I started to write myself, I began to realize how this powerful act of self-expression was the counter opposite of the seclusion, alienation, and repression that mandatory veiling had imposed on me” says Iranian author Ava Homa. In her article, she points out various forms of protest with which women in Iran fight for freedoms and participation – one of them is writing.
Vida Movahedi, a mother in her thirties, stepped onto a utility box in Tehran, raising a white headscarf aloft on a stick. It was December 2017, and she was quietly protesting against Iran’s compulsory hijab policy at a time when the country was roiling with widespread demonstrations against the government of President Hassan Rouhani. Movahedi would repeat her protest in January 2018, inspiring countless women across the country, young and old, to take up her act of civil disobedience. Even some women who believe in wearing the hijab sided with the protestors, emphasizing the right to control one’s own body. In doing so, they created a broad social and political movement that has united a diverse range of Iranian women.
After the photo of Movahedi went viral, she was identified and arrested. Officially, thirty-five women were arrested in Tehran in 2018 for protesting mandatory veiling, though activists believe the actual number is much higher. Some protesters were injured by police as they were pulled down from the utility boxes. One of them, a thirty-two-year-old college student named Mariam Shariatmadari, said she was denied medical care after her arrest. In the aftermath of the protests, many of Tehran’s telecom boxes were remodeled to make them more difficult to climb.
A report from the Iranian government has indicated that 49 percent of Iran’s population is against the compulsory hijab law. First enacted in 1985, the law states that all women in Iran, regardless of their religious beliefs, must dress in accordance with Islamic teachings. As a result, the hijab has become a tool for the government to enforce its strict religious views. Not surprisingly, it is thus also a symbol of women’s opposition to both governmental and religious oppression. The 2018 hijab protests led to the first-ever discussions in parliament about compulsory veiling and how it relates to the personal freedom of women. Interestingly, even some Muslim religious leaders in Iran have sided with the protesters, noting that the Prophet Muhammad did not force women to cover up.
The Iranian government, however, still stands by its dictates and the hijab law is strongly policed. Every year in Iran, thousands of women are prosecuted for having a “loose” hijab. Teenagers have been arrested by “morality police” at private, mixed-gender parties for failing to wear a hijab. The law is also used to prohibit young men from wearing shorts or brand-name shirts that sport a Western look. To this day, women in Iran are violently attacked for wanting to retain control over their bodies. The women who peacefully protested against mandatory veiling in 2017 and 2018 were charged with prostitution, and their lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, has herself been languishing in prison.
Covering Up Body and Voice
Headscarves have a long and complicated history. Beginning in pre-Islamic times, it was common for women in Greater Iran to wear a head covering. According to Fadwa El Guindi’s Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance, the earliest recorded wearing of veils was in the region of ancient Mesopotamia. Later, in Assyria, the veil was a status symbol enjoyed by privileged women. Peasant women, slaves, and prostitutes were prohibited by law from wearing one. Similar customs have been extended to men as well: today, the men of the Tuareg tribe in North Africa wear headscarves as a symbol of social status.
Over the years, headscarves have represented contradictory images. They have been a sign of backwardness as well as progressiveness; of misogyny and anti-colonialism; a form of subversion and subservience. Today, a woman might choose to wear a hijab or to reject it for personal or political reasons, to see it as a form of liberty or limitation, compliance or defiance. The piece of cloth doesn’t mean much in and of itself—it’s the wearer that provides it with meaning.
In modern-day Iran, headscarves have been highly politicized. In 1936, Reza Shah issued and strictly enforced a decree banning all forms of hijab in a bid to Westernize the country. In 1979, in order to Islamicize that same country, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced that women should observe an Islamic dress code. These are just two of many rulers who established their authority by reshaping representations of the female body. When women staged large-scale protests in response to Khomeini’s decree, the government reassured them Islamic dress was “only a recommendation.” But in 1980, the hijab became mandatory in government and public offices, and in 1983, it became compulsory everywhere.
At every point along the way to mandatory veiling, Iranian society as a whole failed to stand behind women and their right to choose. Whenever women rose up against the law, such as at a massive rally in Tehran on March 8, 1979, International Women’s Day, their protests were easily quashed by the ruling groups. Islamic groups interpreted any demand for freedom from the hijab as an anti-Islam sentiment. The left claimed the hijab was a symbol of cultural independence and a rejection of corrupt royalists, declaring that class struggle took priority over women’s rights. Many others stayed silent. No one, it seems, cared to ask women what they wanted.
Women’s fight to have a choice has always been misinterpreted, both in Iran and in the West. Some say vilification of the hijab is a form of Islamophobia. Others say the push to let women choose is merely a Western plot. Others still argue that it’s motivated by men who wish to see women “naked.” It’s as if women are incapable of wanting or demanding equality and autonomy for their own personal reasons.
Therefore, to their shock and dismay, Iranian women realized in the 1980s that even though they shared political, social, and economic problems with men, they were alone in their fight for gender equality. It was at this point that writing took on an even greater importance than before. Alone and unheard, women realized they needed a clear voice that shed light on gender discrimination and on the particularities of their suffering. Imposed veiling pushed women deeper into the forbidden garden of knowledge. The apple had been bitten.
Writing as Rebellion and Protest
The Persian literary tradition is rich with 13th- and 14th-century poets like Rumi and Hafez who are internationally translated and revered, but Iranian men held a monopoly on the written word while women’s voices were suppressed. Male dominance in literature not only deprived the literary tradition of powerful female voices, it also turned representations of women into little more than beautiful lips, eyes, and hair, devoid of agency. Society in general, and men in particular, lacked access to any authentic female world, and there was no dialogue between the genders.
But it wasn’t only women’s voices that were obscured: their bodies were also hidden away in the andarnoonis, a part of the house where men - especially visitors - were forbidden to enter. A visible woman was a dishonor to the family. In fact, a woman who could be seen in public was called a harjai, a term practically equivalent to “prostitute.” One can only imagine how the absence of women from the public realm affected the psyche of society. Women’s existence could only be “heard of” if a man was looking for a wife. Female bodies and voices were silhouettes - traced out through implication, through imagination, and often unsuccessfully. If women ever did appear before men, they had to be covered up. If they ever wrote, their words needed to be hidden. This same mentality lives on today. Here’s an example of the rhetoric on state-run national TV to justify mandatory hijab: “A woman’s body is like a chocolate that has to be covered so flies won’t sit on it.”
Although their voices have been muffled and their bodies barred from the public sphere for centuries, Iranian women learned long ago to unveil themselves through the written word. It’s no coincidence that the first woman who ever publically removed her headscarf, albeit temporarily, was a poet, someone who had liberated herself through the expression of her voice. When Tahirih Qurratul-Ayn bared her head at a men’s gathering in Badasht, Mazandaran, she created an uproar among her “scandalized” beholders. Some covered their eyes; others covered their ears. Some fled from the blasphemy she embodied, one man raised his sword towards her, while another, Abdol Khaleq Esfahani, cut his own throat because he couldn’t possibly bear the disgrace.
All these years later, Tahirih Qurratul-Ayn is still shrouded in mystery. She’s been called the first martyr for women’s suffrage, the Persian Joan of Arc, Iran’s Florence Nightingale, as well as an irrational woman “caught in the grip of her own lustful debaucheries.” Tahirih was executed in 1852 at the age of thirty-six, following nearly four years of imprisonment in Tehran. This rebellious woman was held in solitary confinement at the height of her youth and creativity because there were no prisons for women. There was no need—women were already under house arrest across the country. Their access to literacy was limited, and they were banned from higher education and seminaries.
Tahirih was just the first of many women punished for daring to reject her assigned space. Female writers in Iran have long been shamed for their transgressions. They have been labeled lunatics, been driven to suicide, forced into exile, jailed, and killed. Vocal women are called salite and bi haia, degrading terms reserved only for women. Whenever they connected and spoke among themselves, their conversations were considered gibberish. To this day, any incomprehensible chit-chat is called hamam-zananeh, a demeaning term referring to the women’s public bathhouse.
Virginia Woolf famously said that women need a room of their own and some financial stability in order to write. Despite lacking both, Iranian women began to publish at the turn of the 20th century, demanding an end to their segregation from society. Creating art and crafting powerful literary work demands concentration, dedication, and perspiration, none of which fit into society’s expectations for women as devoted mothers and wives. Yet in spite of this, women managed to create and to send their literary creations out into the world, and Iranian women are among the most highly educated in the Middle East today. Still, much literary prowess never had the chance to flourish, especially among underprivileged women from ethnic and religious minorities. “Let Simone de Beauvoir come and live for a year the life I live here and see if she can still produce one line of writing,” prominent Iranian novelist Simin Daneshvar once said in an interview.
There are women all over the world who freely choose to wear hijab. In Iran, however, women have been denied this choice for nearly 40 years. I write here from my personal experience as a Kurdish-Iranian woman, in which veiling has been a form of compulsion and a denial of agency. My experiences have shown me that there is one powerful way to reclaim that agency and “undo” the repression of mandatory veiling: the act of writing.
Let me explain. When girls see, from the age of seven, how boys get to dress according to the weather, to play, run, and laugh without restriction while they themselves must wear a veil, their childhoods are shackled. From that young age, girls internalize the concept that there’s something fundamentally sinful and shameful about their bodies. This was my experience growing up in Iran. Being forced to exist, behave, and dress in predetermined patterns, I saw my very being as a matter of seclusion and shame. I felt estranged from my own body, perceiving it as a source of temptation for the opposite sex. I saw myself as an object of desire, rather than as a human with choices in my sexuality. The veil I was forced to wear was a symbol of alienation from others as well as from myself.
I fell into the world of literature at a young age. By thirteen, I could recite many modern and classical poems by heart, from 7th-century Rumi to the feminist Forough Farrokhzad. Literature became my refuge and shelter, my life support. Once I started to write myself, I began to realize how this powerful act of self-expression was the counter opposite of the seclusion, alienation, and repression that mandatory veiling had imposed on me. To write is to unveil oneself. Writing exposes and reveals, overcoming obstacles and walls and reaching beyond the writer to engage with the world. Good writing is a means for reflection and exploration, leaving nothing to ambiguity or stereotyping, undoing everything that forced veiling does. For women, in Iran and elsewhere, the very act of writing has been an act of rebellion, regardless of content or style. However, a closer look at the changes in the books published before and after the mandatory hijab law reveals a major shift in women’s consciousness.
Much of what women writers published before the 1979 Islamic Revolution lacked feminist consciousness. In Simin Daneshvar’s 1969 masterpiece, Savušun, the protagonist, Zari, is a rather passive woman who, like her husband Yousef, is more preoccupied with imperialism and the unfair treatment of peasants than she is with the balance of power between the sexes. In the novel, which takes place during the Allied occupation of Iran during World War II, revolution is the territory of men. At the peak of her courage, all Zari does is turn the funeral of her assassinated husband into a public protest, staying loyal to her role as the traditional wife. Kowkab, the protagonist of Daneshvar’s short story “To Whom Shall I Say Hello,” suggests that true men are nice to women unless women push them in the wrong direction. Her own son-in-law - who abuses her daughter - is an atypical man: a namard, or “not-a-man.”
Ironically, forcing hijab on women in the 1980s not only failed to muffle women voices, it actually increased feminist consciousness, and writing became the most common way for women to push back against the restraints put upon them and overcome barriers to communication. The number of publications by and about women skyrocketed in the country and the form and content of writings completely shifted, allowing for play with structure and creative protest against gender and sexual oppression.
Shahrnush Parsipur’s 1990 novel Women without Men is an excellent example of a book that broke taboos by telling the story of women’s mobility in social and sexual realms. Parsipur, who was imprisoned four times and had her book banned, creates female characters who speak of women’s sexual oppression, express their sexuality, ridicule chastity, and articulate resistance to the male-dominated culture.
This post-revolution shift in Iranian women’s writing can be traced back to the disillusionment they felt when their demand for choice was disregarded by their comrades, the opposition, and all men regardless of their political inclinations. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that, despite heavy censorship and a shortage of paper, some 126 books by or about women were published in Iran between 1983 and 1985. When they were forced to cover up their bodies, women responded by uncovering their voices, as contemporary poets and writers who can freely express their feminine world.
I know that story because it is mine as well. When I found my voice through writing, I unveiled myself. The more I read, the more I searched in vain for a reflection of myself in Persian literature and world literature in English. But no one had written Kurdish women into literature, and so I realized that we would have to do it ourselves. I won a scholarship to earn my master’s degree in English and creative writing at the University of Windsor in Canada and in 2007, I left Iran for good.
And so began my years of writing in exile. I put blood and sweat into crafting short stories about modern Iranian women.
For too long, female literary voices, like our bodies, have been subjugated. And yet Iranian women are writing, despite the heavy price we pay. Ever since the hijab law forced the concealment of our physical selves, writing has become our way of unveiling - a way to autonomy. For me, writing has been transformative - an act of rebirth and resistance.
Author: Ava Homa is the author of Daughters of Smoke and Fire, a novel weaving together fifty years of modern Kurdish history. She is an activist and journalist and holds an MA in English and creative writing from the University of Windsor in Canada. Her collection of short stories about modern Iranian women, Echoes from the Other Land, was nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Prize, and she is the inaugural recipient of the PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-In-Exile Scholarship. You can connect with her at www.avahoma.com.
Curation: Sandra Hetzl (* 1980 in Munich) translates literary texts from Arabic, among others by Rasha Abbas, Mohammad Al Attar, Kadhem Khanjar, Bushra al-Maktari, Aref Hamza, Aboud Saeed, Assaf Alassaf and Raif Badawi, and sometimes she writes too. She holds a Masters in Visual Culture Studies from the University of the Arts in Berlin, is the founder of the literary collective 10/11 for contemporary Arabic literature and the mini literature festival Downtown Spandau Medina .
This essay is part of our series "Reminiscence of the future". To commemorate ten years of revolution in North Africa and West Asia, the authors share their hopes, dreams, questions and doubts. The essays indicate how important such personal engagement is in developing political alternatives and what has been achieved despite the violent setbacks.
In addition to the series we also address the ongoing struggle against authoritarian regimes, for human dignity and political reforms in various multimedia projects: For example, our digital scroll story "Giving up has no future" presents three activists from Egypt, Tunisia and Syria who show that the revolutions are going on.
This article was first published by HBS.