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Iranian Women's Rights Activist Recounts Decision To Cast Off Hijab

A file photo of Iranian women's rights activist and journalist Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, who now lives in the United States, in her head scarf
A file photo of Iranian women's rights activist and journalist Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, who now lives in the United States, in her head scarf
On a cold winter day, Iranian women's rights activist and journalist Fariba Davoodi Mohajer made an about-face: Having worn the hijab for 25 years, she decided to cast her head scarf into the sea.

That was in 2006. But she still remembers every detail of that day in Ireland: how she walked along the seaport in Dublin for several hours pondering the act; how she watched as her head scarf was pulled away by the waves.

Above all, she remembers how for the first time she felt the wind blowing in her hair, a feeling she had long dreamed about.

"For a moment, I felt that there was no greater pleasure in the world than the feeling of the wind in my hair," Davoodi Mohajer says.

The hijab, which Davoodi Mohajer had worn since the age of 13, had come to her to symbolize all the discrimination and injustice women are subjected to in Iran in the name of Islam.

Conflicting Feelings

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, wearing the hijab became compulsory for Iranian women. It quickly became a visible symbol of the establishment's reach, with thousands of women detained, harassed, or marginalized every year for noncompliance with the state-imposed dress code.

Islamic laws as applied in Iran over the past 31 years have effectively given women second-class status. Women need the permission of their fathers or husbands to travel. Their testimony in court is given half the weight of a man's. Women's divorce rights are vastly inferior to those of men.

By getting rid of her hijab, Davoodi Mohajer says, she felt she would be free of the societal chains the Iranian government and her ultraconservative husband had imposed upon her.

Fariba Davoodi Mohajer in Washington in July 2010
"I saw the hijab as one of the tools that is being used against women to control them and as a tool for repression," Davoodi Mohajer says. "That's how I see it, and that is why I decided not to wear it any more."

Davoodi Mohajer grew up in a liberal family, but says she decided to wear the hijab at the time of Iran's 1979 revolution because she believed it would make her a better person and Iranian society a better place.

"I thought due to the propaganda then, and also books I used to read, that my hijab gives immunity to the society," Davoodi Mohajer says. "They kept saying men shouldn't become aroused, men shouldn't sin, and I thought preventing that [from happening] was my responsibility."

Creeping Questions

Several years later Davoodi Mohajer, who had chosen to wear the strictest form of the hijab, the head-to-toe chador, began questioning it and other Islamic laws in which she had once firmly believed.

She says her studies and her human rights activities had a key role in her reassessment of reasons for wearing the hijab in the first place.

Davoodi Mohajer says she started asking herself whether the hijab was really giving her "immunity" as claimed by Iranian leaders -- whether it elevated women's status. And, if so, then why didn't women have the same rights as men in the Islamic republic? "Why do women not enjoy equal rights with men when it comes to divorce, inheritance, and other issues?" she says she kept asking herself.

She started writing about women's rights issues and human-rights abuses in reformist publications and giving speeches at universities and other places.

Her activities and her support for dissident Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri led in 2001 to her arrest, beatings, and 40 days' imprisonment at a security prison controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

There, she says, she realized that even the chador she'd been wearing throughout her adult life provided her no immunity.

"When I used to be a 'chadori' and religious, I was arrested and jailed in a men's prison," Davoodi Mohajer says. "They wouldn't let me shower without the door of the bathroom open. The guard would say, 'You can't close the door, I won't look.' I was being interrogated by a man for long hours."

It made her question the motives of those who advocated such strict dress for women.

"I realized then that the hijab doesn't mean anything to them either," Davoodi Mohajer says. "For those who say hijab must be respected, they don't respect you if you wear the hijab but don't share their political ideas."

Polarizing Experience

The experience made her even more determined and outspoken. She became increasingly involved in the women's movement and helped found the One Million Signature Campaign Against Discriminatory Laws.

She took part in a number of demonstrations in support of women's rights, which led to another arrest in 2006.

A few months after her released on bail, she traveled to Dublin, where she made the decision to throw her hijab into the sea. Later, she moved to the United States, where she would make appearances on Persian-language television programs wearing a scarf.

She says the mix of "fear and shame and the chains that the society had created for her" for many years had remained, and she was not comfortable with the idea of former colleagues in Iran seeing her without her head covering.

But while appearing in a live interview broadcast on VOA Persian television, a moderator challenged her by asking why she arrived at the building without a scarf but put one on just before the show went on air.

She was asked whether she would remove her hijab in front of the cameras.

WATCH: YouTube video of the VOA broadcast in which Davoodi Mohajer removed her scarf (at around the 1' 50'' mark):

While Davoodi Mohajer appeared calm, she says that inside a storm was raging and she was burning from fever.

She took her scarf off. It was explosive. The video was posted on Iranian websites and shared on Facebook. She says she received hundreds of messages -- some praising her, and others condemning her.

The Iranian government reacted angrily. State-controlled television aired a documentary in which Davoodi Mohajer was accused of being a tool of the West and "showing her true face."

Davoodi Mohajer says that for her, it was an act of protest against state violence to which women are subjected in Iran.

"For years those women who didn't respect the hijab [fully] were humiliated, they were beaten up, they were jailed, they were flogged, interrogated, they were being eliminated from the society," Davoodi Mohajer says. "They were capable of being in top posts, but they were not allowed to.

"For 30 years, Iranian women have been subjected to all kinds of violence in the name of religion. But if a woman [takes off her hijab], she's accused of endangering morality, chastity, the prophets, and everything."

Davoodi Mohajer adds that she respects women who choose to wear the hijab, but she believes women should be given a choice.

"The Koran says that there is no compulsion in religion," Davoodi Mohajer says. "When they act against Islam, when they [force women to wear the hijab] through force [and] insult, it's natural that society fights back."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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