In the forty years since Iran’s 1979 revolution, no aspect of U.S. policy toward Tehran has produced more heat—and less light—than the question of external efforts to advance political change in Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped squarely into that contested terrain with his speech last year to an audience of Iranian-Americans at the Reagan Library, coming down forcefully in favor of strenuous American and international advocacy but offering little in the way of specific fresh ideas. “While it is ultimately up to the Iranian people to determine the direction of their country,” Pompeo said, “the United States, in the spirit of our own freedoms, will support the long-ignored voice of the Iranian people. Our hope is that ultimately the regime will make meaningful changes in its behavior both inside of Iran and globally.”
Pompeo’s speech met with equal parts praise and scorn. Critics emphasized the checkered historyof U.S.-backed efforts toward Iran, from the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup that ousted Iran’s nationalist hero Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, to the Reagan-era Iran-contra scandal, to the Obama administration’s calculated neutrality toward 2009 pro-democracy protests. Many express equal skepticism about any role for the Iranian diaspora, whose passions traditionally have concentrated around the long-exiled son of the late Shah or an even more unsuitable alternative, the cult-like Mojahideen-e Khalq, a group whose partisans fought alongside Saddam Hussein.
These concerns are not unfounded, but they may be a bit outdated. A variety of factors, including time and technology, has begun to create new opportunities for expatriate Iranians and others to contribute to charting a better course for the future of Iran. No one demonstrates those possibilities better than Masih Alinejad, a journalist who fled Iran after the 2009 upheaval and later launched an innovative human rights campaign that she chronicles in her new book The Wind in My Hair. With the same audacity that propelled her out of the tiny, impoverished village where she was raised and fueled her crusading work during the heyday of Iran’s reformist press, Alinejad in exile has shattered longstanding assumptions about the salience of external activism.
Alinejad’s campaign focuses on one of the central symbols of theocratic rule: obligatory hijab, or modest dress, which enshrined in Iran’s post-revolutionary legal framework on the basis of Quranic injunctions. Her project was born of an expression of joy: a photo that Alinejad posted of herself running through a London street with her hair aloft, which she noted would be a crime in Iran. The photo and message went viral, and that unexpected outpouring of support launched a movement: first, a Facebook page branded as “My Stealthy Freedom” that invited Iranians to post images of themselves without hijab; within a month, the page had nearly 500,000 “likes.” That was followed in 2017 by a hashtag campaign encouraging women to wear white scarves on Wednesdays to protest laws requiring hijab. Alinejad now hosts a weekly show on Voice of America television, and her campaign engages on multiple social media apps, where some of the photos and videos draw millions of views and thousands of comments.
Veiling in Muslim societies has always been heavily contingent on geographic, socioeconomic, and historical context, and in contemporary Iran, the issue has long been politicized. In 1936, the first Pahlavi shah issued a decree that prohibited veiling in a bid to modernize his country and inculcate a sense of national identity; he also mandated European-style hats for men. The edict lapsed a few years later, when the shah was forced into exile and his young son took the helm. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi doubled down on his father’s secular, pro-Western orientation, and in the 1970s, as anti-government activism gained momentum, many women consciously adopted headscarves or all-enveloping chadors as tangible rejections of the monarchy.
Still, even from the start of the post-revolutionary era, the efforts by the state to impose and enforce hijab provoked intense resistance. In the weeks after the monarchy was toppled, hints of a crackdown on women’s dress prompted some of the first protests of the post-revolutionary era, drawing thousands of women to the streets in March 1979 to warn that the imposition of headscarves by the new leadership threatened their rights. “In the dawn of freedom,” their slogan went, “there is an absence of freedom.”
Despite this and other shows of public opposition, compulsory hijab became one of the essential features of post-revolutionary system, first by force and eventually by law. Today, any violation is punishable by modest fines and a two-month prison sentence. Compulsory hijab was the sartorial manifestation of a broader imposition of legal and cultural misogyny by Iran’s post-revolutionary leaders. They quickly nullified the monarchy’s nascent efforts to advance the status and rights of women and in its place erected a legal framework that enshrines gender discrimination.
Nothing in Iran goes uncontested, and the restrictions on women’s rights have drawn intense pushback over the past 40 years. Advocacy by Iranian human rights activists has re-opened additional professional opportunities for women, mitigated some of the most egregious discrimination in family laws, and inspired creative workarounds to official constraints. And yet, as evidenced by Iran’s near-last ranking on the 2015 World Economic Forum report on the global gender gap, a dense “web of restrictions” on women remains intact. As does the regime’s enforcement of compulsory hijab.
Alinejad’s activism was controversial from the start. Iran’s state broadcasters sought to smear her with horrific falsehoods, regime hackers tried to cut off her social media accounts, and she has received death threats from government paramilitary groups. Surprisingly, she has also faced backlash from some expatriate Iranians. Some questioned her focus on hijab, dismissing the fascination with women’s dress as a Western fixation and arguing that Iranian women face more important issues than the piece of cloth on their heads. “Most activists in Iran are more concerned with matters from women’s unemployment to domestic violence,” British author Azadeh Moaveni insisted in 2016. “While mandatory hijab certainly matters, it is for Iranian women to determine what level of priority to accord it.”