TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Billboards in the Iranian capital proclaim that women should wear their mandatory headscarves to honor their mothers. But perhaps for the first time since the chaotic days after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, more women—both young and old—are choosing not to.

Such open defiance comes after months of protests over the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was in custody by the country’s vice squad for wearing her hijab too loosely. While demonstrations appear to have subsided, some women’s decision not to cover their hair in public poses a new challenge to the country’s theocracy. The women’s pushback also exposes divisions in Iran that have been veiled for decades.

Authorities have issued legal threats and shut down some businesses that serve women who do not wear hijab. Police and volunteers issue verbal warnings on subways, airports and other public places. Text messages targeted drivers who had bareheaded women in their vehicles.

But analysts in Iran warn that the government could reignite dissent if it pushes too hard. The protests erupted at a difficult time for the Islamic Republic, which is currently grappling with economic problems caused by its standoff with the West over its fast-moving nuclear program.

Some women said they’d had enough no matter what the consequences. They say they are fighting for more freedom in Iran and a better future for their daughters.

Some suggested that the growing number of women joining their ranks might make it harder for authorities to hit back.

“Are they going to close all the shops?” said Shervin, a 23-year-old student whose short, choppy hair was blowing in the wind in Tehran the other day. “If I go to a police station, will they shut it down too?”

However, they fear risks. The women interviewed only gave their first names for fear of consequences.

Vida, 29, said the decision by her and two of her friends to stop covering their hair in public was about more than headscarves.

“This is a message to the government, leave us alone,” she said.

Iran and neighboring Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are the only countries where hijab remains compulsory for women. Before protests erupted in September, it was rare to see women without headscarves, although some occasionally dropped their hijab onto their shoulders. Today, in some areas of Tehran, it is routine to see women without headscarves.

For devout Muslim women, the head covering is a sign of piety before God and modesty towards men outside of their family. In Iran, the hijab – and the all-encompassing black chador worn by some – has also long been a political symbol.

Iranian ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi banned the hijab in 1936 as part of his effort to reflect the West. The ban ended five years later when his son Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi took over. Nonetheless, many middle- and upper-class Iranian women chose not to wear the hijab.

During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, some of the women who helped overthrow the Shah adopted the chador, a cloak that covers the body from head to toe except for the face. Images of gunmen wrapped in black cloth became a familiar sight to Americans during the US embassy takeover and hostage crisis later that year. But other women protested a decision by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who ordered the hijab to be worn in public. In 1983 it became law, enforced with penalties such as fines and two months in prison.

Forty years later, women in central and northern Tehran can be seen without headscarves every day. While the Iranian government initially avoided direct confrontation over the matter, in recent weeks it has increasingly used state powers to curb the practice.

In early April, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that “removing the hijab is neither Islamic nor politically permissible”.

Khamenei claimed women who refused to wear the hijab were being manipulated. “They don’t know who is behind this policy of abolishing and fighting hijab,” Khamenei said. “The enemy’s spies and enemy spy agencies are following this matter. If they know about it, they definitely won’t get involved.”

Hardliners began publishing details of “immoral” situations in shopping malls, showing women without headscarves. On April 25, authorities closed the 23-storey Opal mall in northern Tehran for several days after women with exposed hair were seen spending time with men in a bowling alley.

“It’s a collective punishment,” said Nodding Kasra, a 32-year-old clerk at a clothing store in the mall. “You closed a mall with hundreds of workers because of some customers’ hair?”

According to the reformist newspaper Shargh, police have closed over 2,000 shops across the country for allowing women not to wear hijab, including shops, restaurants and even pharmacies.

“This is a corporate lose-lose game. If they (women) warn against not wearing the hijab according to the orders of the authorities, people will boycott them,” said Mohsen Jalalpour, a former deputy head of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce. “If they refuse to comply, the government will shut them down.”

Bijan Ashtari, who writes on Iranian politics, warned that business owners who had been silent during the Mahsa Amini-inspired protests may now be standing up.

Meanwhile, government agencies are no longer offering services to women who don’t cover their hair, after some have done so in recent months. The chairman of the country’s athletics federation, Hashem Siami, resigned this weekend after some participants ran without a headscarf at a women-only half marathon in the city of Shiraz.

There are signs that the raid could escalate.

Some clerics have called for the use of soldiers and the all-volunteer Basij Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard to enforce the hijab law. The guard on Monday allegedly seized an Iranian fishing boat for transporting women not wearing hijab near the island of Hormuz, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Police also say “artificial intelligence” surveillance cameras are finding women not wearing head coverings. A slick video shared by Iranian media suggested surveillance footage would be matched with ID photos, although it’s unclear if such a system is currently in operation.

“The hijab struggle will continue to be the focus unless the government reaches an agreement with world powers on the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions,” said Tehran-based political scientist Ahmad Zeidabadi.

But diplomacy has stalled and anti-government protests could spread, he said. The hijab “will be the main theme and the fight will not just be about scarves.”

Sorayya, 33, said she is already fighting for a greater cause by doing away with the headscarf.

“I don’t want my daughter to be under the same ideological pressure that I and my generation experienced,” she said while dropping off her 7-year-old daughter at a primary school in central Tehran. “This is for a better future for my daughter.”


Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


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