An engineer strode onstage at an event in Tehran, Iran, wearing tight pants and a stylish shirt, and clutching a microphone in one hand. Her long brown hair, tied in a ponytail, swung freely behind her, uncovered, in open defiance of Iran’s strict hijab law.
“I am Zeinab Kazempour,” she told the convention of Iran’s professional association of engineers. She condemned the group for supporting the hijab rules, and then she marched offstage, removing a scarf from around her neck and tossing it to the floor under a giant image of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The packed auditorium erupted in cheers, claps and whistles. A video of Kazempour went viral on social media and local news sites, making her the latest champion for many Iranians in a growing, open challenge to the hijab law.
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Women have resisted the law, uncovering their hair an inch or a strand at a time, since it went into effect two years after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
But since the death last year of Mahsa Amini, 22, while in the custody of the country’s morality police, women and girls have been at the center of a nationwide uprising, demanding an end not only to hijab requirements but to the Islamic Republic itself.
Women are suddenly flaunting their hair: left long and flowing in the malls; tied in a bun on the streets; styled into bobs on public transportation; and pulled into ponytails at schools and on university campuses, according to interviews with women in Iran as well as photographs and videos online. Although these acts of defiance are rarer in more conservative areas, they are increasingly being seen in towns and cities.
“I have not worn a scarf for months — I don’t even carry it with me anymore,” said Kimia, 23, a graduate student in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, in western Iran, who, like other women interviewed for this article. , asked that her surname not be used for fear of retribution.
Kimia said that many female students at her college did not cover their hair even in classrooms in the presence of male professors. “Whether the government likes to admit it or not,” she said, “the era of the forced hijab is over.”
Iran’s hijab law mandates that women and girls older than 9 cover their hair and that they hide the curves of their bodies under long, loose robes.
Many women still adhere to the rule in public, some by choice and others from fear. Videos of the traditional bazaar in downtown Tehran, the capital, for example, show most women covering their hair.
But videos of parks, cafes, restaurants and malls — places popular with younger women — show more of them uncovered. Many prominent women, including celebrities and athletes, have removed their hijab in Iran and while representing the country abroad.
The state has long promoted the hijab law as a symbol of its success in establishing the Islamic Republic, but enforcement has varied, depending on which political faction was in power.
After the election in 2021 of Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner, as president, the rules have been increasingly enforced, and with a strictness and brutality that have enraged Iranian women, many of whom were fined, beaten or arrested by the morality police after they were told to be in violation.
But anger over the law boiled over in September, when Amini died in the custody of the morality police and as the street protests that broke out across Iran quickly morphed into broader calls for an end to being ruled by the country’s clerics.
The protests have largely fizzled amid a violent crackdown by authorities that has included mass arrests, death sentences and the executions of four young protesters.
But many acts of civil disobedience continue daily, including chanting “death to the dictator” from rooftops, writing graffiti on walls, and tearing down and setting ablaze government banners.
And women have been going out in public without their hijabs.
Officials said in December they had disbanded the morality police, and they have not been seen on the streets since. For the moment, authorities are only occasionally enforcing the hijab rules, according to women and activists in Iran.
Authorities recently shut down two pharmacies — one in Tehran and another in the northern city of Amol — after female employees were reported for not wearing a hijab. And in the religious city of Qom, they reprimanded the manager of a bank for catering to clients without hijabs. The judiciary has also opened a case against Kazempour, according to Iranian news reports.
Officials say they are reviewing the enforcement rules and plan to announce updated measures. One conservative lawmaker has said alternative enforcement methods are being considered, such as warning women by text message, denying them civic services or blocking their bank accounts.
“Headscarves will be back on women’s heads,” the lawmaker, Hossein Jalali, was reported as saying in December on Iranian media.
But the defiance remains too widespread to contain and too pervasive to reverse, women’s rights activists say.
“The core and heart of this movement is really the revolutionary act of these women turning their headscarves into the most effective and most powerful weapon against religious dictatorship and deep layers of misogyny and patriarchy,” said Fatemeh Shams, a women’s rights activist and an assistant professor of Persian literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
The women who have stopped covering their hair say that they are determined to do as they wish, but that they are in favor of a “voluntary hijab.” They also say they respect the rights of women who choose to wear scarves.
Leila, 51, who lives in Tehran, said she and her teenage daughter had been dressing in public as they did in private and when they traveled abroad — in dresses, skirts, skinny jeans and tight sweaters.
“I recently had to travel and struggled over whether I should wear the hijab at the airport because there are a lot of security agents, but decided against it,” Leila said in a telephone interview. She was stunned to see that the majority of the women at the airport that day had also ditched their hijabs. “We all went through security and passport control with our hair uncovered, and they said nothing. Our power is in numbers.”
Hathis, 25, who reviews books and movies online, posted a photograph of herself on Instagram in December sitting, hair uncovered, with a friend at an outdoor cafe in Tehran. “Is this what it feels like to feel the cool fall breeze blow through your hair? And for 25 years I was denied this?”
Even many religious women who wear a hijab by choice have joined the campaign to repeal the law. A petition with thousands of names and photographs of women is circulating on Instagram and Twitter with the message, “I wear the hijab, but I am against the compulsory hijab.”
Maryam, 53, who observes the hijab law and lives in Tehran, recently traveled with her daughter to the holiday island of Kish in the Persian Gulf. They were surprised to find most women wearing short-sleeved sun dresses, sandals, capri pants and T-shirts. “Are you in Turkey or Iran?” asked her daughter, Narges, 26.
Shortly after the trip, Narges changed all of her social media profile photos to one in which her long brown hair was flowing over her shoulders and her fist was raised in the air. It announced to her religious conservative family that she was taking off her hijab.
“I will never bring down my fist until freedom, even if we have to wait for many years,” Narges wrote on her Instagram page.
Maryam said in an interview that she was flooded with messages and calls from relatives and friends, some supportive and some critical of her daughter.
“I told them that times have changed,” she said. “I respect my daughter’s choice and so should you. It’s nobody’s business.”
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