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Iranian women threw off their headscarves. Now what?

When women in Iran started taking off their headscarves in public several weeks ago to protest the law requiring the covering, the movement went internationally viral. One op-ed in the New York Times called the protests “bold acts of defiance.” Another in CNN described it as a “watershed moment.”

But Sanam Naraghi Anderlini said it’s a movement that has “actually been going on for 39 years,” since the 1979 Revolution, when the new Islamic Republic made headscarves mandatory. “It’s a very courageous step to take, but it’s not surprising to see it coming to this current point,” she said.

Anderlini’s mother was part of the protests in 1979 against the new rule, and every decade since, women of all ages and backgrounds have fought back through social movements, she said. Anderlini was born in Iran and is now co-founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network. ICAN, based in Washington, D.C., is a nongovernmental organization supporting civil society, particularly women actively promoting peace in conflict-affected societies.

“The status of women in Iran and whether they are treated equally or not is an integral part of the identity of the Islamic regime, and the hijab is a critical symbol of it,” she said.

How did the latest movement start?

In December, a woman named Vida Movahed reportedly stood along Enghelab or “Revolution” Street in the Iranian capital Tehran, took off her headscarf and held it up on a stick. She was detained for a few weeks and released, according to news reports.

She became known as “The Girl of Revolution Street.” Others have followed her lead in defying the strict dress code. Not wearing a headscarf in public is punishable by a fine or up to two months in jail, and at least 29 women have been arrested for similar protests.

How has the government responded?

Police in Tehran said foreign entities have incited the protests and “deceived” Iranians to join them, according to the New York Times. The first protest in December appeared to be connected to an anti-hijab campaign called “White Wednesday,” initiated by journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, who lives in the United States. Using the hashtag #WhiteWednesdays, women began posting on social media pictures of themselves wearing white scarves on Wednesdays.

“We are fighting for our dignity,” Alinejad told Nahid Siamdoust, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University, for a recent op-ed in the Times. “If you can’t choose what to put on your head, they won’t let you be in charge of what is in your head, either,” Alinejad added.

The protests have exposed tensions within the government, Anderlini said. Iran’s Attorney General Mohamad Jafar Montazeri called the demonstrations “childish,” but Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has taken a more moderate stance.

“We cannot pick a lifestyle and tell two generations after us to live like that,” Rouhani said last month in remarks aimed at Islamic hard-liners. “It is impossible … the views of the young generation about life and the world is different than ours.”

The debate has followed other cultural divides in Iran in recent months, including protests over how the government has handled the sluggish economy.

Rouhani released a three-year-old report produced by the Iranian Center for Strategic Studies – a research branch of the president’s office – that surveyed 1,167 Iranians in 2014, and found that 49 percent of them disapproved of the government-mandated dress code.

Within Iran’s clerical establishment, there also is a difference of opinion, said Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C. “I have spoken to people who are of the opinion that it should be a choice,” she said. “If the headscarf is indeed an act of religious devotion, then it becomes meaningless if it is mandated by the government.”

The government should never dictate what women should or shouldn’t wear, Mogahed continued, whether it’s forcing the headgear or banning it. “I hope that the same voices cheering on the women in Iran, rightfully so, are also in solidarity with women in France who are often up against their government for banning the headscarf in certain spaces like universities and schools,” she said.

What’s next?

The images of women removing their headscarves now are drawing international notice to their cause. The outside attention could either help bring about change, or will have the opposite effect of entrenching conservative elements of the government and possibly sharpening the crackdown, Anderlini said.

“When you see women really pushing back on boundaries with the risk of being arrested, it’s hard to explain how courageous that is and how scary it can be,” she said.

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, tweeted that the women are “Iran’s Rosa Parks” — an activist in the United States’ civil rights movement.

Over the years, during return trips to Iran, Anderlini noticed subtle differences in how women dressed. In the 1980s, soon after the revolution, she had to wear a headscarf fully covering her hair and baggy clothing. “We wore wide-cut pants to make sure nothing was showing.”

By the 1990s, she and others were walking around with more tailored jeans and lighter, less baggy coats. “You’d see sandals and pedicures,” she said. “Little by little, women would do what it took to push it back, like letting a little hair show.”

Meanwhile, the current protesters are persisting just as their predecessors did, she said. “The hijab is an important symbolic and practical element, but taking away the hijab is not enough. What women are really fighting for in Iran is equality under the law.”