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It’s Woman vs. Woman in Iran’s Protests

The Islamic Republic has always cultivated a reservoir of devoted female support.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
Members of Iran's Basij Islamist militia wave Iranian flags during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of its establishment at the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran on Nov. 26, 2009.
Members of Iran's Basij Islamist militia wave Iranian flags during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of its establishment at the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran on Nov. 26, 2009.
Members of Iran's Basij Islamist militia wave Iranian flags during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of its establishment at the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran on Nov. 26, 2009. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

On July 12, more than a dozen women dressed in long green headscarves and flowing white robes performed a ceremony in Tehran for Hijab and Chastity Day, a holiday invented by Iran’s Islamic regime. They moved in circles with their arms raised up as a narrator, clad in a black chador, recited Quranic verses on the importance of women being covered. The choreography and the narration were designed in part as a threat and a warning to domestic opponents of the Islamic regime. 

A group of Iranians nevertheless launched an online campaign called “No2Hijab” to ridicule the performance. In one thread, Iranians tagged novelist Margaret Atwood, suggesting that the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel in which a misogynist regime violently discriminates against women and co-opts other women into its campaign of systemic misogyny, draw inspiration from Iran for her next novel. 

The nationwide protests that have engulfed Iran since the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for improperly wearing her hijab has drawn renewed attention to the country’s state-sanctioned misogyny. Ever since, Iranian women fighting for their rights have refused to back down in the face of repression. But what’s often gone overlooked is the way that the regime’s misogyny continues to be aided and abetted by the regime’s female agents. The country’s architecture of fear and social pressure has always been maintained in part through the regime’s female spies and ambassadors. 

On July 12, more than a dozen women dressed in long green headscarves and flowing white robes performed a ceremony in Tehran for Hijab and Chastity Day, a holiday invented by Iran’s Islamic regime. They moved in circles with their arms raised up as a narrator, clad in a black chador, recited Quranic verses on the importance of women being covered. The choreography and the narration were designed in part as a threat and a warning to domestic opponents of the Islamic regime. 

A group of Iranians nevertheless launched an online campaign called “No2Hijab” to ridicule the performance. In one thread, Iranians tagged novelist Margaret Atwood, suggesting that the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel in which a misogynist regime violently discriminates against women and co-opts other women into its campaign of systemic misogyny, draw inspiration from Iran for her next novel. 

The nationwide protests that have engulfed Iran since the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for improperly wearing her hijab has drawn renewed attention to the country’s state-sanctioned misogyny. Ever since, Iranian women fighting for their rights have refused to back down in the face of repression. But what’s often gone overlooked is the way that the regime’s misogyny continues to be aided and abetted by the regime’s female agents. The country’s architecture of fear and social pressure has always been maintained in part through the regime’s female spies and ambassadors. 

Former Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the formation of the Basij, a civilian militia that is now an internal arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to fight in the Iran-Iraq War. In the 1980s, he also established the “Sisters’ Basij” or Basij-e Khaharan as a branch to supply provisions to men fighting in the Iran-Iraq War as well as to nurse the wounded. After the war ended, the Basij was not dissolved. The men and the women of the Basij were infiltrated into various state and societal structures to maintain social order in the regime’s favor—often with force. The women of Sisters’ Basij were firmly installed in every part of society: as teachers in religious seminaries and higher education institutions; as researchers in think tanks; and as law enforcers in guidance patrols, or the morality police as they are widely known. Some estimates suggest that 10 out of 25 million Basijis, including reservists, are women. The Sisters’ Basij reportedly run 20,000 bases around Iran and operate 100,000 groups that they describe as “virtuous circles” to spread regime ideology on who qualifies as a good Muslim woman. 

“During the 1980s and alongside their Basiji brothers, these women played a key role in identifying, interrogating, and purging political opposition groups,’’ said Fatemeh Shams, an assistant professor of Persian literature at the University of Pennsylvania. “In the postwar period, supervising women’s dress code in the society became one of their main responsibilities. There are branches of Sisters’ Basij in schools, universities, and public sector organizations.”

The Basiji sisters were tasked with, in effect, relegating women to a secondary status in the name of Islam. But above all this, their mission was to protect the new social and political order imposed by the ayatollah. “The Sisters’ Basij tell women that change is not good, feminism is the enemy, and that all women should sit at home and have babies,” Asieh Amini, an Iranian women’s rights activist, told Foreign Policy from Norway via encrypted communications. She added that women installed in powerful state positions by the regime openly advocate a return to “traditions that existed 1,400 years ago.”

One former head of the Sisters’ Basij has said gender equality is illegal. She has also publicly opposed women’s presence in parliament and said steps to curb domestic violence amount to an assault on society and traditional family values in Iran. The head of Iran’s Office for Women and Family Affairs ruled out Iran ever signing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. 

The Women and Family Research Center in Qom and Iran’s Office for Women and Family Affairs, formerly known as the Centre for Women’s Affairs, are some of the institutions that are part of the infrastructure the regime uses to legitimize its anti-women policies. 

In 2005, it launched a “farhang-e effaf” (or “culture of modesty”) campaign in a further attempt to control society by controlling women. Experts told Foreign Policy that the regime ordered government bodies, universities, and publicly funded enterprises to impose strict hijab-wearing practices and punish women who showed even a strand of hair. This campaign called for inculcating religious identity in girls, spreading a “culture of chastity,” and using state funds and the media to enforce “good or proper hijab.” 

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner, has pursued this policy since his election last year with renewed vigor, and the modesty police has become even more active in cracking down on women wearing a “bad or improper hijab.’’ It was in exercising this policy that a team of morality police, including at least one woman, arrested Amini on Sept. 13. She fell into a coma later that day and died three days later. Her family claims she was beaten to death. The presence of female police officers is meant to ensure the dignity of women while being arrested and protect them from harm while following the law, but in Iran, they carry out or facilitate their humiliation instead. Protests have erupted in cities and towns across Iran since Amini’s killing, and in return, many of the regime’s female agents and their supporters have threatened protesters. 

Shahin Gobadi—a press spokesperson for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, an opposition group in exile—said the principal of Ali Shariati school in Bandar Abbas in Iran can be heard threatening female students in a recording leaked on social media. She warns them that if they don’t “fix the scarf,” intelligence officers will arrest and torture them. “Like other schools, the intelligence department will take your whole family. Once they have pulled your fingernails and torn your mouth, you will fully understand,” the principal said, according to the transcript provided to Foreign Policy by Gobadi. “Four monkeys have gone to the streets. … Do you think the country has no rules?”

But there are plenty of other videos online that show protesters taking on the regime’s female spies and supporters joining the protesters. In one famous incident, a popular Iranian actress who previously backed the wearing of hijabs took it off. Actress Fatemeh Motamed-Arya was one of the 50 hijab-wearing women on a billboard put up by regime-friendly media on a public square. It was titled “Women of my land” and was intended to show support among women for mandatory hijab. But Motamed-Arya refused to be part of the billboard. “I am Mahsa’s mother. I am Sarina [Esmaeilzadeh]’s mother. I am the mother of all the children who were killed in this land,’’ she said in reference to girls killed in recent protests. “I am the mother of all the land of Iran, not a woman in the land of murderers.” In another video, a veiled woman who abused a woman over her hijab was forced out of the bus by other passengers. In yet another video, a girl chases away a veiled woman filming unveiled female protesters. (The regime’s local female spies usually hand over such clips to morality police to help them identify dissidents.)  

Shams told Foreign Policy that according to her conversations with eye witnesses, there is growing discontent among female members of the morality police. A girl who was arrested and is known to Shams told her that a female morality police officer helped her escape. Shams added that the same girl said a lot of women who have joined the Basij are on the verge of “leaving their positions” but find it hard to do so because they can’t financially support themselves. “The current regime promises a monthly income and security to the members of Basij and, by doing so, recruit many young women who end up serving as mouthpieces and oppressive forces of the regime in the society,” said Shams. 

There are indications on social media that the intensity and length of the current protests has persuaded a significant number of pious Iranian women who were previously supporters of mandatory hijab to shift their position. It’s less likely, however, that the same can be said, at least on the same scale, of the Sisters’ Basij.

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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