The women and girls who are removing their veils and waving them in the air like flags of freedom do so in a non-violent protest against the Iranian regime and its compulsory hijab law, imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The campaign started just before the New Year, as part of a larger anti-government protest, after a photo of a young woman, dressed in black and silently waving her white hijab on the end of a stick, went viral. That young woman was Vida Movahed, a 31-year-old mother of one, and the image of her bravery inspired Iran’s women to join her in solidarity and protest.
Vida Movahed took off her headscarf on Enghelab Street in Tehran, Enghelab being the Farsi word for revolution, and soon the movement she inspired was dubbed The Girls of Revolution Street. Day by day, it grew with the help of social media. There had been seeds of protest before, most notably through the online social movement My Stealthy Freedom, where Iranian women shared images of themselves without the compulsory hijab, as well as the work of online activist and exiled Iranian Masih Alinejad, who started the hashtag #WhiteWednesdays to protest the forced hijab, but the actions of Vida Movahed brought that movement from the Internet to the streets at great personal risk for those daring to participate.
It was the quietest uprising Iran had ever seen, and it may end up being the most effective. More than two months into the Iran uprising, the anti-hijab protests are still spreading, from Tehran to Mashhad, Esfahan and Shiraz, more pictures emerging on social media every day of brave women across the country waving their veils in the air. Despite being jailed and tortured, having members of their families intimidated and persecuted, these women persist in their uprising against a totalitarian regime and the most visible symbol of their oppression.
I follow these protests on Twitter, almost obsessively, tweeting images I receive on the messaging service Telegram, retweeting stories, and calls for support. I do this not only because I am inspired by the courage these women are exhibiting, but also because they are doing what I literally was unable to do on my own.
Almost two years ago, I went to Iran and stayed there for almost a month, covering the parliamentary elections and reporting from a country that I had heard so much about but never seen. I immediately fell in love with Iran. Not only did I feel at home there culturally, but also the soul of the Iranian people touched my own, and I found myself hesitantly leaving to go back as my project drew to a close. As a visitor of Iran, a country with Sharia law, I wore the compulsory hijab wherever I went. As a Western woman, I felt uncomfortable and out of place in the veil, not because I am against religious head coverings — as an observant Jew, I would cover my hair if I were to get married — but because I knew that this was the law of the land and that I would be severely punished were I to remove it.
The point is, I didn’t remove it. Even though I had a certain position as a foreign journalist, one from a country with diplomatic ties to Iran, I did nothing to help a cause I truly believe in, or risk my own safety, in any way. I wore the compulsory hijab because I was told to wear it, and I didn’t say a word.
I think about that a lot now, watching the images and videos of women in Iran, waving their veils in the wind. They do not have a Swedish passport or a ticket out, they know they are risking incarceration or worse, and still, they are standing up and speaking up for what they know to be true. It is the most astounding act of bravery and feminism I have ever seen. I stand in awe of each and every one of them, and if I know anything for sure, it is that anyone who calls themselves a feminist needs to speak up for these women and stand by their side as they rise up against tyranny.
We are coming up on March 8, International Women’s Day, and on that day, the Girls of Revolution Street movement has pledged to take to the streets of Iran in a non-violent protest. Using the hashtags #GirlsOfRevolutionStreet and #WhiteWednesdays on Twitter, they have asked for global support for what they are trying to do — gain the freedom to choose — and it really is as simple and universal as that.
International Women’s Day is said to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women all over the world, and there is no greater achievement than the one taking place in the Islamic Republic of Iran at this very movement. We owe these women our support and our outrage, we owe them to remember their names and the names of those who turn their backs on their struggle, and we owe ourselves to remember what International Women’s Day and feminism is all about.
As feminists, we cannot pick and choose our struggles, nor can we be blinded by the comfort or prejudice of our own circumstances. The brave women of Iran are fighting for basic rights and freedoms, and they are risking their lives in the process. Their fight is ours as ours is theirs, and that is the very definition of sisterhood.
So, please, on March 8, speak up for the Girls of Revolution Street in any way you can. Do it for Vida Movahed. Do it for the basic human yearning for freedom. Do it for all those whose names we will never know.
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein (@truthandfiction) is a journalist and author based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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