Have Iranian Women's Concerns Been Reduced to 'the Veil' by International Media?

Published January 31st, 2018 - 12:50 GMT
Twitter has been flooded with images of Iranian women (and men) repeating the hijab-waving protest of Movahed across the country (Twitter)
Twitter has been flooded with images of Iranian women (and men) repeating the hijab-waving protest of Movahed across the country (Twitter)

Many in the West have enthusiastically praised a recent wave of protests against Iran’s compulsory wearing of the hijab.

Multiple women have taken to the streets in imitation of Vida Movahed, whose defiant demonstration and subsequent arrest captured massive local and international attention last month.

Still, it is possible to see Western applause for resistance against obligatory hijab not only as superficial, but also as unhelpful in that it reduces Iranian women’s concerns to “the veil,” often running dangerously close to anti-Islam narratives.

Twitter has been flooded with images of Iranian women (and men) repeating the hijab-waving protest of Movahed across the country.


Such acts of defiance draw much interest from the international media.

Veteran British journalist John Simpson tweeted Monday: “Social media in Iran today have now shown pics of at least 5 women protesting against hijab laws. 2 arrested. Their courage is remarkable.”

The U.K.’s right-wing Daily Mail, in particular, has followed the story closely, producing considerable coverage.


Movahed was taking part in “White Wednesdays,” a campaign launched by “My Stealthy Freedom” founder Masih Alinejad, which encourages Iranian women to wear white on Wednesdays in protest at the imposition of the head-covering.

But Alinejad has faced criticism from some Iranians.

In a tweet Monday, journalist and writer Azadeh Moaveni challenged “Iran's diaspora anti-hijab activists, who make bedfellows with neocons and the extreme right.”

Moaveni was referring to Alinejad, who is based in the U.S., after another social media user highlighted a Facebook post in which she had praised French politician Marine Le Pen for refusing to wear hijab.


Known for her anti-Islam attitudes, Le Pen had not covered her head in February last year, when meeting with Lebanese Muslim leaders.

Certainly, there is often a worrying link between supposed support in the West for Muslim women’s rights - and, in particular, criticism of the hijab - and Islamophobia.

Nineteenth century British colonialist, Lord Cromer, used criticism of “oppressive” veiling in Egypt as a way to frame Islam as inferior, and justify his imperial project. He did so while resisting women’s voting rights back home.

A very similar story can be seen today. Last January, conservative critics of the Women’s March in the U.S. suggested that they protest at the Saudi embassy instead. Their concern was not for gender equality, but rather to stigmatize “backwards” Muslim countries.

It is for this reason that right-wing papers like the Daily Mail take so much interest in stories like this. They are well aware that they get high reader traction for news that seems to show Islam in a negative light.

Even liberal commentators in the West can be overly zealous when engaging with Iranian women’s fight against obligatory hijab wearing.

Earlier this month, historian Farian Sabahi wrote a piece for Grazia on demonstrations in Iran. According to Al-Monitor, she emphasized that “even though the women’s question remains an important one in Iran, the uprising was not directly triggered by the compulsory veil.”

Her piece, however, was allegedly edited without her permission before publishing, and her words manipulated to place resistance of compulsory hijab at the center of the protests.

In so doing, it had erased important commentary on the true grievances of Iranian women participating in the protests: “rising prices, corruption, lack of transparency.”

Even for those with genuine interest in Muslim women - rather than those wanting to criticize Islam through faux concern for their rights - the issue of the hijab can take on too much emphasis. Publications, knowing a simplified headline on veiling will appeal to a well-meaning liberal audience, ignore deeper and more complex issues.

Azadeh Moaveni, who called out “diaspora anti-hijab feminists,” had previously said in a New York Times op-ed that “while mandatory hijab certainly matters, it is for Iranian women to determine what level of priority to accord it.” She added that “most activists in Iran are more concerned with matters from women’s unemployment to domestic violence.”

Bearing that all in mind, however, this latest wave of protests shows that the law which has imposed hijab on women in public since 1979 is a key concern for many Iranians.


Moaveni may assert that Iranian women did not need “outsiders who think they know best.” Yet it is not foreigners who are undertaking these defiant acts and risking their freedom.


Today is Wednesday, and new videos and pictures of protests have already begun flooding social media. 

As Alinejad told the Guardian on Monday: “Forced hijab is the most visible symbol of oppression against women in Iran, that’s why fighting for freedom to wear or not to wear hijab is the first step towards full equality.” 


Perhaps, then, it is important to gain some balance. To stand in solidarity with Iranian women when they are fighting against compulsory hijab, yes. But also to make sure their voices are heard when their concerns are less instagrammable or click-grabbing.

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