How Iranian Women Are Protesting Against the Country's Strict Dress Code
In Iran, uploading a photo of yourself without a hijab, or a video of your singing, can be an act of protest.
Iran is home to perhaps the most strictly enforced dress code in the world. In the capital, Tehran, thousands of Gashte Ershad, or morality police—both in uniform and plainclothes—patrol the streets, looking for men with flashy jewelry or certain haircuts and women in form-fitting clothes or loose hijabs, which are required by law to be worn at all times.
According to Amnesty International, between March 2013 and March 2014, upwards of 2.9 million women received a police warning for dress code infractions. This May, a woman was even arrested for posting a photo of herself without a hijab to Instagram. And Tehran is cracking down further, deploying 7,000 new officers last month to keep an eye out for insufficiently pious outfits.
"As a woman, every time I venture out into the streets, I am constantly pre-occupied by how I should dress," said Neda, a 32-year-old Iranian woman who spoke to VICE under the condition of anonymity. "Should I be wearing this tight-fitting coat? Is my coat too short? Am I likely to be arrested because of what I am going to wear?"
And some have also taken to removing their hijabs, sometimes just for brief moments, and taking photos of their uncovered heads as an act of resistance. The resulting photos are compiled by a site called My Stealthy Freedom. The project's Facebook page recently hit a million followers and has continued to grow despite efforts by the government to shut it down and discredit its founder, Masih Aleinjad.
With the recent influx of thousands of undercover police in Tehran, using My Stealthy Freedom has never been more important—or more dangerous—for the city's women. The platform is one of the few remaining relatively safe spaces left for Iranian women to unveil and express themselves, though the risk of getting caught has also been heightened, as anyone could be an plainclothes morality officer. This has bred an Orwellian degree of paranoia amongst Iranian women, but most My Stealthy Freedom users, including Neda, are unfazed.
"I am so much in the mood to fight for my own rights in my own country that I am not scared anymore. I want to be able to dress as I see fit," said Neda, whose photographs on My Stealthy Freedom have been featured by CNN and other international news outlets. "I could get arrested anytime, but I have no intention of giving up on fighting despite the possible dangers lurking for me."
For maybe just for a few ephemeral moments, women using My Stealthy Freedom unveil themselves in front of the lens of their smartphones. It's an open act of rebellion, a taste of freedom, and a portal of expression for oppressed women, who also view its as a pipeline to change in their country.
"There is a cultural revolution going on in Iran," said another My Stealthy Freedom user in a video sent to the site. "Our women are increasingly courageous to flout these laws and their numbers are growing. Just think about it: If everyone complied with the compulsory veiling, we would not have this new 7,000-strong police force. These women are no longer scared of the police."
"Through social media you can see the true face of Iran"—Masih Aleinjad
"For 37 years, not only my hair, but the hair of millions of Iranian women has been held hostage by the Islamic Republic," said Aleinjad, My Stealthy Freedom's founder, who created the site in 2014 while living in London. "Our hair has been held hostage because the government wants to control our bodies."
Aleinjad, 39, an Iranian journalist now living in Brooklyn, thinks this type of behavior, coupled with the existence—and popularity—of platforms like My Stealthy Freedom, speak to a turbulent cultural shift unfolding in Iran. (If she returned to her home country she would be imprisoned.)
"It's a cultural war between two lifestyles: The lifestyle that the government wants to put pressure on people to follow. And the lifestyle that the youth is already following," she added.
But this cultural shift is fueled largely by the proliferation of social media, and one, that Aleinjad suspects, is responsible for the massive deployment of undercover morality officers in Tehran.
"When you turn on the TV in Iran, you only see women in hijabs. But this is not Iran," Aleinjad contends. She described a "legal Iran," which is seen on Iranian official media, and "illegal Iran," which lives and breathes online. "Through social media you can see the true face of Iran," she said.
"Social media is a tool and weapon for Iranian people who have been censored for more than 30 years," she continued. "The government of Iran has guns, bullets, prisons, and power, but the people of Iran have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, social media, and their own words."
It's unclear, however, whether social media alone can truly be a catalyst to real change in Iran.
"Websites like My Stealthy Freedom show there is a very strong support for change in Iran," said Alireza Nader, an Iranian foreign policy researcher for the RAND Corporation. "[But it's] not necessarily going to change the political system today or tomorrow. It's going to take a very long time for Iran's political system to change or evolve. The political system is very much reactionary. As long as Iranians question the system, they can chip away at it in the long term."
But neither that skepticism nor the ever-hovering threat of harassment, arrest, prison, or worse, are deterrents for women like the ones promoting My Stealthy Freedom.
"If I did not challenge these laws, my conscience would be full of guilt," Nena said. "I have at least managed to contribute in my own way to making it known to the entire world what Iranian women really are like and how they really wish to live."
Dorian Geiger is a multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn and a freelance contributor for VICE. His work has appeared in The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Politico, Narratively, and other publications across North America. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.