My friend was in Tehran during protests following the death of Mahsa Amini while he was detained by the vice squad (Gasht-e Ershad). My friend entered a grocery store with the intention of buying milk. The seller refused to sell her anything. “Why do you refuse?” she asked. “I see you have milk.” “Because you’re wearing a hijab,” the seller replied.
This is part of a response from those who consider themselves oppressed by the Islamic Republic’s discriminatory hijab law, which persecutes women for not “covering up”. The term hijab is an Arabic word meaning covering. It is used to refer to various types of covering, from a long-sleeved jacket, trousers, and scarf to the Islamic government’s preferred dress, chador, a loose-fitting black cloth worn over the entire body. After the assassination of Mahsa Amini in September, mass protests broke out against this law and its enforcement.
From April 1983, after the 1979 revolution, hijab became compulsory for all Iranian women. Since then, all women have been forced by law to wear a hijab (a covering of hair and/or body) in public, even non-Muslims and foreigners visiting Iran. If they don’t, they risk prosecution.
The government of Iran, the Islamic Republic, states that God commands women to wear hijab. This is a government that has leaders who are members of the clergy and has merged religious beliefs into state laws. But even some Islamic scholars argue that the Quran does not suggest that hijab should be mandatory.
Iranian hijab protests.
Mahsa Amini’s case polarizes Iran: Those who rigorously advocate the hijab and religious law are opposed to those who prefer a secular state not guided by religious values.
This has led the nation to its current upheaval, with massive protests across the country and people killed.
At many protests, the Iranian resistance song Zan, Zendegi, Azadi (#WomenLifeFreedom) is heard. The protesters are calling for life and freedom for all (religious and non-religious). Much of the motivation behind these protests is to challenge how current religious law deprives women of the right to choose what they want to wear.
What is secularism?
Secularism is the idea that states should be neutral about religion. The state should not support one religion over others. A secular state provides equal opportunities for religious and non-religious citizens to pursue their lives. The state must respect everyone’s values (including minorities), not just the values of some people.
Secularism seems reasonable to many because it is unusual for an entire nation to believe in one religion as a single source of law. Some scholars of Islam disagree with the Islamic Republic’s established interpretation of whether God has provided a mandatory hijab. As a result, they claim that hijab is not about covering hair, but about “modesty”. Some others dispute the way the morality police treat women on the street.
While some people may object to women being forced to wear the hijab, others continue to feel strongly about its continued use. Iranian authorities have reportedly closed some coffee shops over the “inappropriate” hijab of some female customers. And more recently, a woman was arrested for having breakfast in a cafe without a hijab.
Iranian history of secularism
Modern debates about secularism in Iran can be traced back to the Constitutional Revolution in 1906. It advocated liberalism and secularism and started conversations about a society with no religious rules for everyone.
Iranians were forcibly secularized shortly after Reza Shah Pahlavi was crowned in 1925. In 1936, he issued a decree that any public display of religious belief, including wearing hijab, was illegal. Again, this was a leader telling women what to wear. His attempt to militantly secularize and westernize Iran, however, was met with resistance from society.
The overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979 led to the establishment of a militant Islamic government based on Shia Muslim teachings. After the hijab became obligatory, it became a symbol of obligatory faith. It has also played an important role in pushing some segments of the Iranian population towards a more secular state.
In 2022, Iran will experience some dramatic shifts, including what appears to be a shift towards secularism. Some argue that secularism is an enemy of religion or a product of Western colonization. Despite the majority of Iranians considering themselves to be religious, some evidence shows that Iranians are less religious than before.
Since the Islamic Revolution, much research has been done on how Iran could function as a secular society and on religious tolerance.
The current protest movement, mainly led by Gen Z in Iran, is growing in part through the use of the internet and social media to communicate and share information. Social media also allows people to learn from other countries’ experiences of secularism. That is why the regime shuts down the internet and censors YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.
A poll suggests that more than 60% of Iranians now want a non-religious state, the question is whether those in power want to give it to them.