According to the “first follower” theory, the first follower is just as important to the development of a movement as its initiator. That certainly seems to be the case in Iran, where dozens of citizens have protested mandatory headscarves for women by hanging scarves on the ends of sticks and waving them up on busy streets in an unprecedented act of defiance. A woman named Vida Movahedi was the first to protest in this way on December 27, in Tehran. She was promptly arrested (she has since been let out on bail). More than a month later, a second woman, Narges Hosseini, did the same thing, in the same spot, on January 29. She, too, was arrested.
But in the following days, dozens of women (and some men, too) have copied them across the country. Their photos and videos have been widely shared on social media. They are being called the “Revolution girls”, because the two first women protested on Revolution Street in Tehran.
A protester in Isfahan on January 29.
Most seem to have done this quickly enough to get away with it, but on February 1, Tehran police announced the arrests of 29 people involved in these actions in the capital – without giving any indication as to whether they were arrested on the spot or later.
Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian women have been required to cover their whole bodies except their faces and their hands. However, they have gradually managed to push back the limits.
Jila Baniyaghoub, an independent journalist in Tehran, explained in a Tweet:
“Women started fighting against the compulsory hijab starting in 1979. With patience and step by step, they first pushed the scarf back on their heads, farther and farther. Then they started wearing looser scarves. And today, women even dare to wear scarves around their shoulders.”
The fight against headscarves took to social media back in 2014, when women started posting photos of videos of themselves without headscarves and posting them online. But this new iteration of the protest takes it to a new level.
A woman in Shiraz who copied the first two women describes her experience in a video posted on Instagram. She said:
“I live in Shiraz [central Iran]. I went to the most crowded street in my city and stayed there for 10 or 15 minutes. I felt stressed at first, but then I gained confidence. Many people gathered around me; they were taking photos and videos, and encouraging me. No one insulted me or criticized me. Everyone was very supportive. After 10 or 15 minutes, a police car arrived. When they opened the car doors, people started telling me to run. I jumped down and ran away.”
The protester quoted above, in Shiraz on January 21.
“Women are fed up with this everyday humiliation”
Narsin Sotoudeh is the lawyer for the “first follower”, Narges Hosseini. She told FRANCE 24 that her client is currently incarcerated in Gharchak prison, and that her bail was set at 500 million Tomas (about €90,000), which her family cannot pay. According to Soutoudeh, Hosseini is a 25-year-old student who hails from a modest family in the centre of Iran.
“Every day, when Iranian women wake up and decide to leave their house, they have to reckon with the fear that they could be arrested over what they decide to wear. They risk being arrested in illegal and humiliating ways, with insults and, in many cases, violence. All of this because they wore a short or tight manto [a long tunic], short or tight trousers, or failed to wear a headscarf.”
An apparently conservative protester wearing a chador and yet protesting for the end of compulsory hijab, in Mashhad on January 31.
“What the morality police are doing here is a not only a human rights violation, it’s also illegal according to Iran’s laws, because the women generally aren’t given lawyers, nor do they see a judge – cases of incarceration are rare; most women are given fines. [Editor’s Note: When women are fined, a friend or relative must bring them “appropriate” clothing so that they may leave the police station]. According to the law, these women can be fined between 5,000 and 50,000 Tomans [between €1 and €10] or given up to two months of prison.
Iranian women aren’t allowed to make their own choices about their bodies and the way they dress. They are fed up with this everyday humiliation.”
Iranian journalist Ameneh Shirafakn tweeted: “Iranian women are standing up today. They’re taking off their hijabs in reaction to years of humiliation. These women have feared going to public places because the morality police might not like their clothes, grab them, humiliate them and throw them into a police car.”
“With these recent cases where women take off their scarves as an act of protest, there are rumours that they might face heavier charges [than in cases where their dress is simply considered inappropriate], like “conspiring to disturb the peace”, a charge which carries up to five years in prison. But as a lawyer I have to say that this is baseless – what these women have done does not fit that criteria.
These women are bravely protesting a bad law, and they’re doing so peacefully, like black people in the United States in the 1960s who tried to access public spaces that were forbidden to them through non-violent protest.”
After the first two women carried out their scarf-on-a-stick protest, Tehran police’s first reaction was to park a police car in front of the spot where they did this.
Iran’s attorney general, Mohamad Jafar Montazeri condemned the protests: “These are childish acts provoked from abroad … We consider this a tiny issue in a country with 80 million citizens, where most citizens observe the hijab law. The people won’t let [protesters] fulfill the enemy’s goal … If someone walks in the street without a hijab, she has committed a crime and should be prosecuted. But enlightening them [about hijab laws] is our first priority, before we resort to prosecution.”
In December, Tehran police made a surprise announcement that they would no longer arrest women for failing to wear headscarves. However, this apparently does not extend to those doing this in clear protest against the hijab laws, since the police have announced the arrest of 29 people who have taken part in the latest movement so far.