Memories Of Compulsory Hijab And Why This Revolution Is So Important To Support
There is a picture of my Mum, Dad, my sister, and I outside our home which evokes a lot of emotions in me. It’s 1980 and we are living in the port city of Bandar-Abbas by the Persian Gulf. It’s hot and humid. My Mum is wearing a long dark brown uniform which she made herself, with matching trousers and a head scarf with a small tie under her neck. My dad is wearing the same clothes he wore before, my sister and I are wearing colourful dresses.
My Mum was a high school teacher. Up to then I remembered her long brown hair, going to work. Suddenly her world changed and so did our world as her daughters. Her hair and her body became the source of political maneuvers by the men in power, by Khomeini’s men. Those men were the ones who re-defined the path to heaven for women and brought compulsory dress code and hijab to Iran. Some women also followed suit as it has been the case all over the history when women have been brainwashed to be another pillar to the oppression of women and patriarchy. Music and dancing were banned soon after and women were also banned from singing as a woman’s voice was resembled to another temptation for men to commit sins and derail the revolutionary values. Expressing happiness became a sin. The reason given was that expressing happiness for a non-religious reason would take our minds off God and the revolutionary values. The 1979 revolution in Iran had been indeed hijacked by clergymen and the country was turned into a theocracy, women became the target of the regime and harsh rules, and regulations were introduced to control every move they made. The obsession of the regime with erasing anything from our past also started, for years people of Iran were not allowed to choose Persian names for their children and Persian names were not allowed for companies and shops. This has now changed for political gain.
My family and I moved to the city of gardens and poetry, Shiraz, and that’s when I started primary school. I loved Shiraz, if it was not because of the claws of the morality police (called Komiteh) getting tighter and tighter around our necks through their ever-increasing patrols. A lot of women were arrested, interrogated, flogged, and physically tested to see whether they were still virgins if they were unfortunate enough to have been caught with a man who was not a close relative. Any obvious form of showing you may have been in a loving relationship with someone was banned and met with severe punishment. I decided to leave the house less and less as a teenager, it was just not worth the stress. In addition to all the restrictions the regime had imposed on us women, the constant sexual violence and harassment on the streets was rife at the time and the police was not someone I felt comfortable going to report such incidents. It was obvious that we women were alone, and no one would hear us or want to help us.
Those of us who were not religious (or did not want to pretend we were religious) and not connected to those in power were pushed to the margins of the society and feared the retribution by the regime and its people. The propaganda at girls’ schools was widespread, frequently we had lectures by clergymen telling us what hijab would mean: that hijab would make us look like a pearl in an oyster shell exposed only when it is right. I think what they meant was that until a man exposes us and makes us his own. Highly sexualising our bodies became a norm. Soon a new technology was introduced to zoom out the body of women on popular foreign imported TV shows. If a woman’s neck or chest were showing, this technology was able to zoom massively on the face of the woman, leaving her neck and the rest of her body out. As a young woman, it was so humiliating to watch. Women’s arms, legs and any other parts of their bodies apart from their faces started getting blanked out with thick black markers on all products packaging on sale even on Turkish imported small stockings packaging. We started being erased from everywhere because of our gender. The breasts were cut off the manikins in the shops and you could not search the word ‘woman’ in the search engines any longer. The book 1984 by George Orwell is the closest a book can get to the state of Iran. The Big Brother was truly watching.
A few years into the revolution, the TV presenters, were still not forced to wear black chadors, soon we noticed new faces arriving fully covered in black chadors.
Everything became about what we women wore, how we interacted with men, and how we behaved. There was always a big saga on TV and radio if a male celebrity accidentally shook a woman’s hand as any type of touching was banned. From a very early age, I was aware of all these discriminations, and I used to dream of living in a world that I could be treated as an equal to a man, that I could have freedom of choice to live like a man.
When I was 6 years old, I noticed I am not free to bike as boys were, so I used to think of ways to be able to bike and go far away. I made a plan to shave my head, wear shorts and a t-shirt and since my ears were not pierced like other girls my age, I thought that’s a good way of tricking everyone else that I was in fact not a girl and could freely bike away to a faraway place. That of course never happened, but I did a lot of planning around it.
Years passed and the pain of dealing with being an outsider, an unequal, an untrustworthy, cause of all evil and a second-class citizen never became ordinary or easy to handle. In fact, it got harder and harder to stand. I started planning to leave the country and go to a country that I would be treated as an equal to a man. I learnt English and applied to study at Victoria University of Wellington. I wanted to go to a country of natural beauty and where better than the end of the world where it rained all the time and as a result had such lush green spaces. I used to dream of tramping in the bush on my own, the freedom, the feeling of wind in my hair... I started writing down a list of what I would need in order to go tramping in New Zealand. I got my cousin involved with all the planning, we filled up pages of a notebook with all the equipment we would need. By that time, when I was about 14 years old, my family had moved to the city of Karaj, 40km away from Tehran.
I painfully waited for my high school to finish. In 1996, to get a student visa and to get into a university in New Zealand, you had to have at least one year of tertiary education in Iran for your application to be considered. I selected the easiest and shortest Computer Science degree (a two-year Associate degree in a remote town in the outskirts of Tehran) on the entrance exam registration form just to get through that one year university as a prerequisite.
We have been so used to having no say in Iran and have no ability to question anything anywhere that when Victoria University rejected my application to study a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, I took it as done and did not follow up to find out why. I was 19 years old at the time, I decided to sit the entrance exam again to transition into a bachelor’s degree in Tehran and then try again to do my Masters at Victoria University. I passed my transitional exam and enrolled at the Southern branch of Azad university in Tehran.
Universities in Iran were a place of oppression and control of what women wore, whether they had any makeup or nail polish on or whether they hung out with any male students. For a couple of years wearing the black chador became compulsory for female students and I, alongside a lot of my friends, resented wearing it. We all put the chadors in our bags and a meter left to the university’s Search and Interrogation booth we would bring our chadors out and hesitantly wear them. Something must have happened at the top that they realised this was not working so they dropped that rule later; however, we were still obliged to be fully covered in baggy long dark-coloured uniforms (colours permitted were black and dark brown only) and big scarves to sometimes cover our chins even. Apparently exposing our chins would also temp men into committing sins of some sort.
That degrading look at women that promotes the idea that the essence of a woman’s existence is her sexuality that is displayed in the form of her hair or body parts and if not covered or controlled all hell will break loose, is the root of the oppression of women by men for centuries. The three Abrahamic religions are at the centre of such oppression of women and the promotion of such ideas. The idea that a woman cannot be trusted (is too emotional) and therefore should be cared for by a man is at the centre of these religions whether it’s through having the father or older brother being in complete control of a daughter or sister’s life or through having a husband as the head of the house and the ultimate decision maker and provider. Those who have stood up to such old pillars of patriarchy throughout history have always been severely punished or outcasted. For those women who have tried to break free of such discriminatory rules and negative stereotypes, attempts to destroy their reputation, accusations of being a loose woman or wanting to be a prostitute have usually followed, knowing perfectly well that these accusations are still very effective in destroying a woman’s reputation in a patriarchal society. This is nothing new and especially the latter two are currently being used by the Iranian regime against women who want to break free of patriarchal rules in Iran.
Those of us who were not religious or were anti-regime, had a label at the time, we were called Taghooti and we proudly wore it. The constant brainwashing lessons at school, in schoolbooks, on TV and on the street walls in the form of huge morals, over years had started working on me, deep down I started believing that although I was proudly a Taghooti, I was actually not a very good person. It was at the university dormitory that I realised I couldn’t defend my beliefs. When I told a religious roommate that it would be good to have freedom of choice not to wear hijab, I couldn’t think of an answer straight away when she harshly responded: “What’s that type of freedom you are after by not wearing the hijab?” A few years later, when I left the brainwashing cell of the Islamic Republic, I could be myself again and think clearly, I wished a thousand times I would see her again to give her a proper answer.
It was a cold winter day in 1997, and I had a long dark brown jacket on with my usual jeans that day walking to the university. I never wore make up and followed all the dress code rules that day too. I arrived in the Search and Interrogation booth. There were two women sitting, covered in black chadors eating feta cheese and bread. One of them looked at me and offered me breakfast. I politely said thank you and that I had eaten, holding my breath, I sensed this offer was of course not genuine and something was up, I hurried to pass. She stopped me and said: “What’s this jacket you are wearing?” I responded: “It’s the only winter jacket I have” wondering where she was going with that as my jacket ticked all their boxes. “I know exactly why you are wearing that jacket.” I stared at her feeling increasingly anxious, “You are wearing this jacket because you want to attract the male students’ attention!”
25 years has passed since that day but I still remember that moment clearly, years of bottled-up anger, at the same time that feeling of being defenseless, having no rights or power, being nobody, feeling that she has all the power and I have no power to even defend myself and the absurdity of her accusation was worse than anything I could ever stand... This is when I made a decision there and then and I didn’t think twice. I turned around and left. That was the last time I ever attended a university in Iran. I came home feeling determined to try Victoria University again. I asked my cousin who was visiting from the US to help me call the International Office at Victoria University and we figured out that there was only a misunderstanding on their behalf around the American word ‘college’ education which I had used instead of university education for that one year prerequisite tertiary education needed. Within months I had arrived in New Zealand.
For 24 years, out of shame I did not talk about any of the above only with my closest friends. We Iranian women and other oppressed groups of Iran, have been ashamed of talking about what’s been done to us, and we have been so scared of speaking up about the atrocities we saw in the past 43 years, but we are finally shaking all that fear off and speaking up.
The empowerment and freedom of us women and other oppressed groups in Iran, is the empowerment and freedom of the entire nation. As we watch with admiration from afar all the brave women and schoolgirls who have been removing their compulsory hijab, being arrested, sextually assaulted, raped and tortured by the regime forces for the mere reason of being a woman and wanting to have a voice, as we watch our people from all walks of the society and ethnicities being killed on the streets of Iran, we are more determined to amplify their voices and raise awareness within the international community. History has proven that all dictatorships will go and the theocratic dictatorship in Iran is not immune to that.
For a free Iran