Maxim A. Suchkov is a PhD political analyst, Russia Editor at Al Monitor, and a fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
A little more than a year ago, on 27 December 2017, a woman climbed on top of a utility cabinet, one of those boxes you see in the street for telecom equipment, she took off the headscarf that she was wearing, she tied it to the end of a stick and she waved it like a flag.
That might not seem noteworthy, just a little strange, except for the fact that the woman who did it was Vida Movahed, and the utility cabinet she stood on was on Enghelab Street, which means Revolution Street, in Teheran, the capital of Iran.
Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, wearing a hijab, a headscarf covering the hair and neck, is required by law for all women in Iran. Vida was arrested almost immediately and is currently on bail awaiting trial.
Within a couple of days, several women posted images on social media of them doing the same thing. One of them, Narges Hosseini, was arrested and charged with openly committing a sinful act which carries a penalty of 10 years in prison and up to 74 lashes; she is also on bail pending trial. Since then many other girls and women have followed Vida’s example, despite dozens of them being arrested and some beaten by police.
Reports indicate that Iran’s hardline Islamic government is unsure whether to crack down hard on these protests, or turn a blind eye – they fear that either strategy could lead to them spreading. Some of their attempts to prevent the protests have been pathetic, such as fixing obstacles on top of utility boxes.
Iran is different to Saudi Arabia, where women were only recently given the right to get a driving licence, and still can only go to university, or even go shopping, with the permission of a male guardian.
The place of women in Iranian society is complex. There are female members of the Iranian parliament, some of whom have expressed something akin to grudging support for the Girls of Revolution Street, as the protestors have become known. Before that revolution, women had comparatively much more freedom. In 1979, thousands of women protested in the streets at the introduction of this very law, making the hijab compulsory.
The courage of the women in the recent protests cannot be overstated. They protest, often alone, often in a street full of hostile men. They are well aware that rape, and torture, including sexual torture, are common Iranian prisons, particularly for prisoners protesting against the regime.
And, should they try to escape and claim asylum, every single one of them is banned from entering the United States under Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban.