Why Hoyas Should Care About Women in Iran

December 4, 2018

The Iranian government generated international headlines this month – not because of its nuclear program or a contentious international agreement – but because it allowed several hundred women to attend a soccer match.

Why is this newsworthy? Women have not been allowed to attend men’s sporting events in Iran for almost 40 years, just one of many restrictions on women’s freedom. Women are not allowed—either by law or a fatwa (Islamic ruling)—to sing solo, dance, or ride bicycles in public. Mandatory veiling and dress codes have been imposed. Many are subjected to abuse and harassment by the Revolutionary Guard.

These young women in Iran may be thousands of miles away, but their dreams for freedom are just like those of students at Georgetownor any other university.

“Like you, they should be free and not have to live in fear,” says Azar Nafisi, author of bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran and a current Georgetown SFS Centennial Fellow.

Nafisi, along with other Iranian activists and experts, will address Georgetown on Wednesday about the restrictions that Iranian women continue to face, and how women are mobilizing, often at great personal risk, to demand their rights.

 In her memoir, Nafisi describes how she defied some of these restrictive laws herself following the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Nafisi recounts how she secretly gathered female students to read forbidden Western classics, including Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and of course, Lolita.

During their Thursday morning meetings for two years, Nafisi and the girls would remove their veils—which the government mandates women wear starting at the age of seven—and discuss themes of oppression and resilience that featured prominently in the novels as well as in their own lives.

The book club operated at great risk, which was well understood by all of its members. As Nafisi writes: “The streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey rules are hurled into patrol cars, flogged, fined….”  

Indeed, Nafisi had already been expelled from the University of Tehran, where she was teaching, for refusing to submit to the heavily imposed rule to wear a veil.

One of the book club members, Sanaz, was arrested along with her friends without any justification, subjected to virginity tests, forced to sign “confessions,” and sentenced to 25 lashes for vague accusations of vice.

These injustices and abuses of power might have been unbearable were it not for the escape made possible through literature.

In the years since Nafisi’s bestseller was published, women have continued to resist courageously in the face of the regime’s authoritarianism. One of the most visible forms of protest has been against the compulsory hijab.

In the capital city of Tehran, women have subtly defied mandatory hijab laws for years. Recently, women in more conservative, rural areas have grown similarly defiant, risking harassment, arrest, and imprisonment by police and paramilitary forces for violating dress codes, including by merely showing strands of hair under their headscarves.

Masih Alinejad, an exiled Iranian journalist and activist, grew up in one such rural village.

One day, while abroad, Alinejad shared a picture of herself on social media running without a veil, captioned: “Whenever I’m running free and my hair is dancing in the wind, I remember that I come from a country where for thirty-odd years my hair has been taken hostage by those in power.”

She received an outpouring of comments from Iranian women envying her freedom from the mandatory veil.

Soon after, Alinejad published another photograph of herself, taken inside Iran, also without a veil. In the caption, she said that she knew millions of other Iranian women had created similar moments of freedom—a stealthy freedom.

Alinejad invited women to share their stealthy moments of freedom. And millions have.

The viral online campaign Alinejad created against the mandatory hijab has snowballed, with women and men protesting in the streets, many removing their hijabs or waving them on a stick.

The word mandatory deserves extra emphasis here: Alinejad advocates for freedom of choice, not against hijabs. (She also takes issue with the hijab ban that was in place before the Islamic Republic of Iran assumed control in 1979.)

The protesters know their civil disobedience is risky. But as Alinejad says: all they care about is gaining their freedom back. That is worth any price.

Well-intentioned Westerners sometimes wonder whether they should support Iranian women’s campaign for freedom—does it make them Islamophobic or will it be seen as a call for regime change?

Alinejad adamantly says the answer is “no.” She stresses the importance of standing in solidarity with women in Iran—and in any country that has restrictive laws.

Nafisi adds: “Sometimes I talk to friends or former students in Iran who give to despair—they think they’re alone. I really empathize because that’s how I felt when I was in Iran.”

People outside the country do have a role to play. They have to remind those inside Iran that the world has not forgotten them—and in fact, we are learning from them.

Hoyas, we have a chance to show our solidarity. On Wednesday, December 5 at 4 p.m. in Gaston Hall, Nafisi and Alinejad will be speaking at Georgetown about the women’s rights movement in Iran. Let’s show them that they are not alone.


Melanne Verveer
is the Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She recently served as the first U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, a position to which she was nominated by President Obama in 2009. In that capacity, she worked to ensure that women’s participation and rights are fully integrated into U.S. foreign policy. She currently serves as the Special Representative on Gender Issues for the OSCE Chairmanship.

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Firouzeh Afsharnia

Quite a bit of hyperbole here. As usual, think tanks and activists have carved out quite an industry and some nice careers out of human rights issues in Iran. At the end, such efforts serve only to prop up and elevate careers in the West, and serve to instrumentalize these issues for the purpose of regime change in Iran.