For some Iranian women, walking down the street is an act of defiance. They risk harassment and arrest, under constant surveillance by Iran’s morality police. Why? They dare to venture out in Tehran without a headscarf, or hijab (pronounced HIH-job). In choosing to uncover their heads in public, the women knowingly break the law. They do it to express opposition to the strict dress code imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. (See “Iranian Revolution Anniversary.”)
Different cultures set different boundaries with regard to appropriate attire. Some cultures think fully covering the female form helps to protect image and identity—or to prevent male sin. Genesis 1:27 tells us that all people are created in God’s image. Physical appearance is not inherently bad. Sin surfaces when one person looks at another as an object instead of an image bearer. On the other side, sin also occurs when one person attempts to cause another to focus too much on his or her physical form. Christians battle their own sin by calling on the Holy Spirit to change their inside intentions—not another person’s outside appearance.
In Iran, the hijab is a compulsory piece of women’s clothing. But the head- and hair-covering scarves are polarizing the country—causing opinion divisions that sometimes result in arrests or angry responses.
Many Iranian women still go into public only if dressed in a “chador”—head-to-toe black robes and tightly pulled headscarves, obscuring identity. Yet more and more women are pushing back against Iran’s strict dress code—specifically the mandatory hijab. Authorities struggle to suppress protests. “They are running after us, but cannot catch us,” says one woman anonymously. “This is why we believe change is going to be made.”
What does change look like? Today, a growing number of women navigate the streets without a hijab. They are often seen in affluent areas of Tehran, like upscale shopping malls. Other women opt for loose, colorful scarves. These scarves show as much hair as they cover, pushing legal dress code boundaries.
Some women learn through social media of others stepping out uncovered. They then feel empowered to do the same, even at risk of being called out by government watchdogs. Some have been arrested and imprisoned for defiance. Of those, many get placed in solitary confinement—with no other human interaction—for the public nature of their crime. Others are coerced to retract their opposition to the dress code in video “confessions.”
Paniz Masoumi dyed a portion of her hair blue. She keeps that bright patch hidden under a scarf. If hijabs were voluntary, she’d throw hers off. But for now, “I am not looking for trouble,” she says. Activists have to maneuver carefully and accept that change happens slowly. Their lack of conformity threatens the existing social norms—at least for now.