Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Sun, Mar 1st, 2015

Iran’s International Women’s Day in 1979: a story of sadness and pride

When discussing Iranian women, the first image that comes to mind is that of women covered with hijab – which is indeed a truthful image – but how and when did the forced veil come about? 

It is often assumed that the 1979 revolution in Iran was Islamic and that its victory brought with it the veil as mandatory attire for women. The revolution, however, was neither Islamic nor did the hijab become compulsory the day after victory was achieved.

When the Islamists overtook the people’s revolution in 1979, it took them four years to crack down on women’s resistance and the legalization of the forced veil was first introduced in 1984.

Six days of demonstrations

In late February 1979, as Iranian women were preparing to celebrate their first post-revolution International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, a statement issued by Ayatollah Khomeini made them anxious and frustrated: “In an Islamic ministry, no sin is allowed. Naked women are not allowed to enter the ministries. Women are allowed to work in the ministries, but they must wear a proper Islamic hijab”.


The women understood the hidden message in Khomeini’s reference to ”naked women”. He was certainly not referring to undressed women, but to those not wearing the hijab. Khomeini’s words were interpreted as the first attempt to introduce the compulsory veil.

The March 8 demonstration hence turned into a devoted resistance against the compulsory hijab. Around 50,000 women demonstrated in Tehran alone and thousands joined them on the streets of Isfahan, Uromyeh, Kermanshah and Sanandaj.

Despite Hezbollahi’s [a movement created to aid Khomeini in fortifying power] brutal crackdown, the demonstration lasted for six days and attracted both domestic as well as international support.


Simone de Beauvoir, the renowned French feminist and philosopher sent a few feminists to report on the demonstration whereas another group joined the protest and produced a documentary called “Femmes contre hejab”.

The demonstration caused Khomeini and his men to back off and withdraw their decision about the hijab as mandatory attire. Ayatollah Taleqani, Khomeini’s right hand, argued that women’s rights are protected and Khomeini’s statement was no order but ”a fatherly advice” whereas Abbas Amir Enteazam, spokesperson of the provisional government of the time, claimed that ”there is no single person in the cabinet believing in forced hijab”.

The struggle continued

Although the female resistance managed to push back the Islamists, the struggle was far from over; Khomeini was looking for another opportunity to reinforce the compulsory hijab.


In June 1980, he held a bold speech in which he criticized the government for not having “cleaned” governmental buildings from the signs and symbols of the former regime. The government was given ten days to Islamize all governmental institutions. A few days later it was declared that all unveiled women were symbols of the previous regime under Shah Pahlavi and are thus not allowed to enter the ministries.

This was only the beginning. Every day a new place was announced to be closed to unveiled women. After the ministries and governmental buildings, the private sector including shops and cafés were obliged to install large signs saying: “We refuse to serve unveiled women”.

Gradually, the mandatory veil became a de facto dress code.

No law had yet been initiated but unveiled women were getting more and more restricted. They were not only banned from entering governmental and private buildings but also harassed and attacked by Islamists in the streets. Religious extremists would attack them with razor blades, by pushing pins into their foreheads and in some cases even by shooting at them. Their slogan was “ya roosari ya toosari”, which means “either wear a scarf or get hit on your head”.

The harassments, street attacks and assaults continued until 1984 when the parliament passed a law for compulsory hijab. Appearing unveiled in public was to be punished with 74 lashes. This law remains until today.


Women were alone

While women were out in the streets protesting and chanting slogans like “We did not make a revolution to go backwards”, “No to forced veil”, “I said it every moment, I said it under torture, death or freedom; revolution is meaningless without the liberty of women” and “In the dawn of liberty, the place of women is empty” other political groups and intellectuals refused to recognize the importance of their resistance and thus turned their back to it.

Leftist groups categorized women’s issues as bourgeois matters and, surprisingly, failed to notice the great oppression that was exercised against half of the population they were fighting for. This was a mistake for which both the Iranian left as well as women paid a high price.

Other intellectuals either asked women “not to turn a scarf into such a big deal” or wait until the situation was more stable as there is “enough time for less important matters such as women’s issues”.

The last 35 years of Iranian history have revealed the urgent need of full support for women’s issues by all progressive groups within the Iranian society.

One could argue that the story of Iranian women’s resistance is both sad and proud. It is sad because women were defeated by being ignored by other political groups, but proud because their devotion and determination gave rise to a resistance that, ironically on International Women’s Day, managed to make a dictator back off.



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