Women have worn the hijab in Iran for three decades -- some voluntarily, others begrudgingly.
To not do so would be breaking the law. But now women from both camps are going online to push back.
Dozens of Iranian women, and some men, living both inside and outside the country, have posted their pictures on the Facebook page of a newly launched campaign
called, “No to Mandatory Hijab” that declares that women should have the right to choose whether or not to wear the Muslim headscarf.
Among the posters, according to the campaign’s organizers, are women living inside the country who voluntarily wear the chador -- the long cloak with a head scarf -- but believe that the hijab shouldn’t be compulsory.
The activists who launched the campaign describe themselves as “liberal university students and graduates” and say it’s meant to be an expression of solidarity with Iranian women, who they say should have the freedom to decide what they wear.
Dozens of intellectuals, journalists, activists, artists, religious and secular Iranians have joined the campaign by posting their pictures on the Facebook page of the campaign and expressing their opposition to the mandatory hijab. In just a few days the page has attracted more than 10,000 fans.
Campaign leader Alireza Kiani told RFE/RL that at least half of the people who have “liked” the page live inside Iran. Kiani, who left Iran about a year ago, says he was deeply bothered by the constant harassment of Iranian women over their appearance.
“It’s an insult to women but also men,” he says about the mandatory hijab.
Iranian officials claim that women who do not properly cover up themselves lead men astray. They also maintain that the hijab -- especially the chador -- is the best protection for women.
The 27-year-old Kiani said the campaign is aimed at stirring public opinion about the compulsory hijab and forcing political figures and others to take a stand.
“We’re especially targeting the reformists and religious intellectuals who in the early days of the revolution were either supportive of the mandatory hijab or kept silent about it," Kiani said.
"We believe that if tomorrow Iran will be free, if in tomorrow’s Iran there won’t be any compulsion and mandatory hijab, those reformists, religious intellectuals, and, in general, political figures have to take a clear stance regarding it. So that if there are changes in Iran, we will have a document from them proving that they expressed their opposition to the compulsory hijab.”
The mandatory hijab -- often described as one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic -- has long been a challenge for authorities to enforce.
For the past 30 years, women in Iran have been harassed, arrested, and fined for not fully observing the Islamic hijab dress code -- which requires them to cover their hair and body and dress modestly in public. But men, also, face pressure over their appearance or hairstyles, when authorities consider them inappropriate or un-Islamic.
Despite the state pressure, it’s not uncommon to see young women pushing the boundaries by wearing trendy and tight clothing, using make-up, and showing as much hair as possible. The state responds with crackdowns -- usually in summer -- and increasing the pressure on anyone who challenges the rules.
The participation of a prominent reformist cleric, U.S.-based Mohsen Kadivar, in the “No Hijab” campaign has been met with criticism by some who say his political affiliation and religious views could undermine the cause.
Kadivar has been quoted by an opposition website as saying that there is no religious reason to make the hijab compulsory. “We don’t have any verses in the Koran or saying by the [Prophet Muhammad] that gives anyone the right to take action against an individual that doesn’t wear the hijab,” Kadivar is quoted as saying by the opposition Jaras website.
Kiani sees Kadivar’s participation as a positive development.
“It’s natural for seculars to oppose the Islamic hijab because it is a religious issue. It is important that a cleric like Kadivar, who used to be one of the supporters of this regime, is today publicly opposing the mandatory hijab," Kiani said.
"For this campaign it is an honor to have been able to create a [movement] in which Kadivar, along with, for example, the [popular Iranian singer] Sattar, says no to compulsory hijab.”
Not all opponents of the hijab are supporting the campaign. Posts on social media sites by activists reflect a distrust of the campaign organizers. There is some distrust of “liberal university students and graduates” who, in the past, have expressed support for tough Western sanctions against the Islamic Republic, which some fear could eventually result in military strikes against Iran.
One woman in Tehran who did not want to be named said that despite her strong opposition to the hijab, she was not planning to join the campaign.
“What’s the use of it?” she wrote. “It is not going to change the pressure we’re facing to cover up. I think our defiance is stronger than an online move. [Morality police] detain us, harass us, but we keep coming to the streets with makeup and small, colorful scarves.”
It’s true that in recent months, Iranian activists have launched a number of social media campaigns that burned brightly at first, but were quickly forgotten or fell inactive -- including the “Iran Loves Israel” campaign and the “One Million Likes for [opposition leader] Mir Hossein Musavi,” which garnered only about 3,500.
Kiani said he and his colleagues are determined that the “No Hijab” campaign won’t meet the same fate.
-- Golnaz Esfandiari