After daily protests subsided, that attitude is the most conspicuous change amid a brutal crackdown by the authorities. Human rights groups say more than 500 people have been killed and at least 20,000 arrested since September. The government describes the rebellion as riots backed by foreign powers.
For years, young women in Tehran have been testing the rules on what they can wear publicly, pushing the limits of what’s permissible, risking arrest and punishment. But by publicly burning veils in street bonfires and cutting their hair, women have reset the terms of their relationship with the state.
That makes it harder to quash, said Sussan Tahmasebi, Washington-based director of Femena, a group supporting female human rights defenders in the Middle East. “It reflects the anger and frustrations of multiple generations of women who are now supporting one another,” she said. “It’s grandmothers, mothers and daughters and great-granddaughters who have had to tolerate this violence and humiliation over many years.”
Nothing, though, has officially changed. The state still sees the women who embrace their new sense of freedom as criminals. The vans of “morality” police stalking Tehran’s busy boulevards may have disappeared, but the clerical leadership hasn’t and there are still reports of police stopping women in the street.
Photos and videos of women walking down the street or carrying out mundane errands with their hair out went viral on social media. Yet an early example led to the arrest of one after she posted a photo of herself and a friend eating breakfast in a downtown cafe.
On a recent visit to an upscale mall in northern Tehran, Neda saw a man going shop-to-shop warning retailers about tolerating customers and employees who didn’t veil properly.
There are also frequent reports of businesses being shutdown or punished for allowing women to work in offices without covering their hair. Last month, a Tehran court ordered a police investigation after female employees at Iran’s largest online retailer, DigiKala, shared selfies of themselves without wearing headscarves.
Official policy on the hijab patrols has been kept vague, with different institutions either contradicting each other or keeping silent on the matter. Hardline lawmakers have been calling for new laws. There needs to be methods to ensure that “veils are back on the heads of Iranian women within two years”, Hossein Jalali, a parliamentarian and cleric, told state television in December.
These include barring women from banks and seizing their personal assets as well as surveillance using face-recognition software. For the past five years, police have already been using car licence plates to identify women caught on CCTV with “un-Islamic attire”. They are sent text messages, warning them of fines or threatening to impound their vehicles.
There’s been a proliferation of these messages since the protests started, according to Kim, a 25-year-old in Tehran who works for a software company. She also declined to be identified by her full name for fear of reprisals.
“Even in ride-hailing apps, the companies that are close to the government, they’re trying to use these services against ‘bad hijabi’,” she said. “But people will wear their scarves for 10 seconds or however long it takes to run their bank errand or make a journey – and then remove it immediately once they’re out on the street.”
The prospect of a widespread crackdown on unveiling remains, as does a fiercely religious and loyal section of the population prepared to take matters into their own hands.
Schoolgirls, whose classroom rebellions were a hallmark of the recent display of dissent, have been targeted with poisoning aimed at shutting down their schools. Hundreds have been hospitalised since November with the latest spate late week, including in Tehran.
The government said it’s pursuing the perpetrators, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this week called the incidents a “big crime” that warranted severe punishment.
Despite that backdrop, there’s a palpable sense that Tehran’s social landscape is changing. “Even if I feel someone is about to confront me, I have more confidence to defend myself now,” Kim said. “The voice of those who don’t want to wear the hijab any more has reached the ears of everyone, even around the world.”
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