Commentary

Resisting Iranian Extremism

Iran seems to be a perpetual case of the good, the bad and the ugly. Ugly is the regime, an extremist sectarian system that has caused untold misery to its own people and others. Bad is the challenge of dealing with a potential Iranian nuclear weapon.

But there is good. The Iranian people increasingly are standing up to their oppressors. That doesn’t mean that an Iranian Spring is imminent or Iranians look to America as their liberator. However, as resistance to extremist rule grows, so does the possibility of internal regime change, the only kind likely to be permanent.

For instance, in recent weeks the world witnessed women across Iran protesting by climbing onto telecom boxes, taking off their headscarves and waving them about on sticks. These demonstrations began with one woman, who adopted this simple act — a peaceful symbol of dissent, dubbed “the quietest protest Iran has ever witnessed” by The New Yorker — on Revolution Street.

As resistance to extremist rule grows, so does the possibility of internal regime change, the only kind likely to be permanent.

So far, more than a score of women have been arrested for their defiance. Yet, the bravery of women labeled the “Girls of Revolution Street” has raised the profiles of freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and women’s liberation around the globe.

These protests refute cultural relativism, which spawned arguments on behalf of mandatory hijab restrictions, irrational contentions that justified limits on women’s freedom decided by panels of men. The Girls of Revolution Street are rebelling against what can only be understood as oppression and are insisting that the hijab prove its worth.

If an item of clothing or other cultural behavior truly serves a valuable purpose, then let that purpose speak for itself — and allow women to freely decide whether to wear it. After all, an inherently good and valuable thing usually does not require the threat of arrest to convince people to use it.

Therefore, said Nasrin Sotoudeh, a female human rights lawyer in Tehran, “The message is very clear and very specific — that women want to be able to choose if they wear hijab or not. This is a civil-disobedience movement. Women know what the laws of the land say about hijab, and, based on that, they chose to protest.”

The Girls of Revolution Street also have demonstrated the transformational power of technology. It seems fitting that a number of these protests were not only timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, but also fueled by the global nature of social media.

There have been numerous protests on the hijab before now in Iran. But The New York Times suggested that the increased attention received by the latest demonstrations might be thanks to social media. Indeed, social media is encouraging as well as spawning protests.

One notable example is Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad’s Facebook page, “My Stealthy Freedom.” On it, she encourages subtle protests of the mandatory hijab rule. The page seems to have inspired numerous activists behind the protests.

The hijab demonstrations also highlight how both liberty and injustice take many different forms. Soon after people took over Iran’s streets to criticize poor living conditions and political oppression, the Girls of Revolution Street began protesting about their particular priority, freedom of expression.

And making the wearing of the hijab mandatory is but one form of injustice Iranian women face. The Washington Post noted that “Iranian women, for instance, are banned from singing in public, cannot attend public sports events and need a husband’s approval to get a passport or travel outside the country.”

Iranian officials are arresting and imprisoning peaceful protesters, yet these women have not backed down and continue to demonstrate their vision of a world in which people with different opinions can co-exist. One recent image captures a religious woman, wearing a full traditional Iranian chador, mimicking the Girl of Revolution Street’s initial protest by waving a headscarf on a stick.

This is an incredibly meaningful statement — one that sardonically challenges the regime to answer whether the supposed threat comes from the protests themselves or the garb women are wearing at the time.

Iran’s path to better governance remains complicated, the fight will be long, and results remain uncertain. However, the hijab protest is a single, simple, yet profound act that confronts Tehran with the bare truth that while Iranian women are forced to wear headscarves, the regime is wearing nothing at all.

Matt Daniels is chair of Law and Human Rights at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.