Iran: How the headscarf became the new threat to the regime

Clothing debate with consequences
In Iran, the headscarf threatens the regime – because women want to "choose freely between veil and miniskirt"

Demonstrators outside the Iranian Embassy in London

The wave of protests is also spilling over Iran's borders: here people are demonstrating in front of the Iranian embassy in London

© Tayfun Salci / DPA

After the death of a 22-year-old in Iran, people vented their anger on the streets. The most serious unrest in years is not just about the question of clothing.

Women who openly set fire to their headscarves. Men who beat up police officers for filming demonstrations. in the Iran the pent-up anger of hundreds of thousands of people is vented on the streets. The protest spread like wildfire across the country after the death of a young woman. Fear and hope hang in the air as government prepares a response.

In the capital, Tehran, the student Schabnam* has been taking to the streets for days because she wants change. "I can sit around and regret everything, or I can do something about it," said the 25-year-old in a telephone interview. The death of young Mahsa Ahmini in police custody had shocked her and many people around the world. The Iranian Kurd died on Friday last week after being arrested by the morality police a few days earlier because of her "un-Islamic style of dress".

"You can't beat up, arrest or kill everyone," says Schabnam. It gives her courage to take to the streets together with other people. In many cities, as night falls, as people spill onto the streets, the slogan "We're not afraid, we're not afraid. We're all together" can be heard over and over again - a slogan used especially during the demonstrations after the controversial presidential election became popular in 2009.

"Despair is one reason why the regime should be afraid"

But today, 13 years later, the country is different. Not only does the economic crisis play a role, which forces even educated university graduates to drive taxis and the savings of the middle class dwindle due to high inflation. The young generation is also bravely opposing the state and criticizing the Islamic system. For many it is not about the Islamic religion to refuse.

"Who in Islam would take a young girl for a headscarves kill?" asks Schabnam's father, who works as a pharmacist in Tehran. Like his wife, he was initially worried that the children would go to demonstrations. But the religious parents who were involved in the fall of the monarchy during the Islamic revolution in 1979 are also concerned aware of how angry many people are: "The desperation is one reason why the regime should be afraid."

Many protesters have been calling for the overthrow of the entire Islamic regime in Iran for almost a week and instead a secular system, in which state and religion are separated, as an alternative. However, Shabnam and her family do not go that far. "Turkey is also Islamic, but women are free to choose between a veil and a miniskirt," says Schabnam. Therefore, according to her assessment, not all demonstrators are concerned with a "political overthrow, but with an end to outmoded Islamic criteria that have been imposed on Iranian society over the past four decades".

Iranians practice open criticism of the system

The government of the arch-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi has been since Death of the young woman and the nationwide indignation found it difficult to explain. Hardly anyone believes the official account that the 22-year-old collapsed due to heart failure. Her case has long since become a symbol of the dissatisfaction of many Iranians. The demonstrators are also receiving support from unusual quarters. Formerly conservative politicians are calling for a course correction.

The protests have become an open challenge for the Iranian leadership over the past four days. On the streets, women took off their headscarves, which they had to wear. Angry demonstrators set fire to garbage cans and called for the existing system to be overthrown. "Women, life, freedom" was shouted, or "Death to the dictator!" – an allusion to the religious leader Ali Khamenei. This form of open system criticism should not go unanswered.

Dress issues threaten status quo in Iran

So far, the government and state media have hardly addressed the protests. When it is reported at all, the newspapers describe the protest as an attempt by foreign powers to exert influence. But today hardly anyone believes the rhetoric of the ideologues, which dates back to a time of resistance in the 1970s. This is one of the reasons why the state seems to have almost shut down the internet to prevent any attempt to organize protests.

Experts in Tehran doubt that the government is now making concessions. According to a university professor, the headscarf requirement is not just any law, but one of the ideological principles of the Islamic Republic. Supporters of the system fear a domino effect should the state make major concessions to women in their choice of clothing.

While almost all social networks are blocked and the mobile Internet is switched off, many fear that the security forces will intervene harshly. At least 17 people have been killed so far, according to state media. How many there really are can hardly be checked. Iranian celebrities showed their solidarity with the protests around the world. But most can only watch helplessly.

Schabnam has no hope of outside support either. Nevertheless, the student hopes for change and political reforms. "Now is not the time to be afraid," she says.

*Pseudonyms were used to protect the identity of the interviewees. The people are known to dpa.


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