Debunking fake anti-hijab protest: Misrepresenting the Iranian Women's March of 1979

Photo by Hengameh Golestan, widely claimed as the "anti-hijab" protest

Over the past several years, one photo has become extremely popular and has been frequently published in mass media and shared on various social networks, most often with a false description. The photograph, dated 8 March 1979, depicts the gathering of Iranian women in Tehran during the Iranian Islamic Revolution. The most common fake description claims it was the "anti-veiling protest" against the alleged "1979 hijab law" imposed by the new Islamic government, and that "more than 100,000 women" gathered on the streets to demonstrate against it. In other words, the description suggests that Iran was a Western-style society with full women's rights, that the Revolution of 1979 was directed against women and the new government suddenly forced them to wear the veil despite strong opposition, and that women's voices have been probably overwhelmed. Now, what's correct among these statements and suggestions?

Fact checking

The answer to the above question is: absolutely nothing. The whole event, coupled with what preceded it as well as the later consequences, is described in detail in the English-language scholarly editions written by academic historians, including Ervand Abrahamian, Hamid Algar, Farzaneh Milani and others. In short, there was no any "100,000"-strong protest, the gathering was not about clothing, and there was no any "1979 hijab law." Scientific literature gives us a completely different picture.

To begin, we need to emphasize that the wearing of headscarf and chador was one of main symbols of the revolution, along with the resurgence and wearing of other traditional Iranian dresses. This resistance was an answer to the earlier policies of a repressive Pahlavi regime. The fact is that the Iranian women were forced to remove their veils abruptly, swiftly and forcefully in 1935 through an arbitrary decree by Reza Shah, and to enforce this decree, the police was ordered to physically remove the veil off of any woman who wore it in public. Women were beaten, their chadors and headscarves torn off, and their homes forcibly searched. Until Reza Shah's abdication in 1941, many women simply chose not leave their houses in order to avoid such embarrassing confrontations.

The Westernization policies implied to men's clothing also and it provoked massive non-violent demonstrations in July of 1935 in the city of Mashhad, which were brutally suppressed by the army, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 100 to 5,000 people (including women and children). Historians point that Reza Shah's ban on veiling and his aggressive policies are unseen even in Atatürk's Turkey, and some scholars state that it is very difficult to imagine that even Hitler's or Stalin's regime would do something similar. Later, official measures relaxed slightly under next Shah and wearing of the headscarf or chador was no longer an offence, but became a significant hindrance to climbing the social ladder as it was considered a badge of backwardness and an indicator of being a member of the lower class. Discrimination against the women wearing the headscarf or chador was still widespread with public institutions actively discouraging their use, and some eating establishments refusing to admit women who wore them.

Despite all legal pressures, obstacles and discrimination, the largest proportion of the Iranian women continued to wear headscarves or chadors, contrary to the widespread opposite claims. It is estimated that in the mid-1930s, only four thousand out of 6.5 million Iranian women ventured into public places without veils, almost all in Tehran and consisting mainly of Western-educated daughters of the upper class, foreign wives of recent returnees from Europe, and middle-class women from the minorities. In the late 1970s, headscarves and chadors were worn by all women as a religious and/or nationalistic symbols, and even many secular and Westernized women, who did not believe in wearing them before the revolution, began wearing them, in solidarity with the vast majority of women who always wore them. That's absolutely understandable for a country where being bareheaded is traditionally associated as immature, rural, nomadic, poor and foreign. Iranian women were active participants in the Revolution that toppled the dictatorship, and all historians agree that without their support victory wouldn't be possible.

Tracing the misinformation's origin

So, what really happened on 8 March 1979, and who invented the myth of the "anti-hijab" protest? First, the gathering was on the International Women's Day, so women marched not only in Iran but all around the World, for various reasons. In Iran, International Women's Day has been celebrated every year since the early 1920s. Considering diversified chants, slogans and banners, their motives in 1979 were different: from celebrating success of the Iranian Revolution and earned economic, social and political rights, to demanding additional benefits, etc.

A day earlier, on 7 March, when answering journalist questions before leaving Tehran to return to Qom, Ayatollah Khomeini said "Now that we have in Iran an Islamic government, women should observe Islamic criteria of dress, particularly those that work in the ministries." There are two things to be noticed: first, this was a recommendation, and secondly, it was directed particularly at women in government service. A few hours after giving the speech, his words were distorted by some groups which interpreted it willfully as "a command to be enforced by coercive means if necessary" and as meaning that "all Iranian women must immediately cover themselves with the chador," and the same groups called women to participate in protest against such measures on tomorrow's Women's Day.

Seizing upon this distorted series of sentences in the speech of Ayatollah Khomeini, a weird alliance of people organized the "feminist protest" in Tehran and tried to mingle with the other women (marching with different motives), to convince the worldwide public that everything revolves around them and their ideas. Demonstrations (against rumors) were led by Kate Millett, psychotic American activist invited to Tehran by a Trotskyist group, whose book "Going to Iran" from 1982 popularized this event. Millett, along with Sophie Keir, traveled to Iran and carried motion-picture cameras with them, interviewed few participants, and in a cooperation with French Marxist-feminist group "Psychanalyse et Politique" produced a twelve-minute 'documentary' of the women's march with Persian and French voice-over narration, titled "Iran's Women's Liberation Movement Begins."

The Iranian transitional government quickly denied rumors and described such groups as monarchist and Marxist counter-revolutionaries, while Khomeini further explained that restoring genuine dress-code should be the people's decision and taken gradually. Several other officials also argued that in the spirit of Islam veiling should be only encouraged and promoted rather then imposed by coercion or force. Mehdi Bazargan, then Prime Minister, announced that the left-wing troublemakers, corrupt royalists, and counterrevolutionary elements had distorted the Ayatollah's statement. Scholars like Hammed Shahidian and Reza Ramezani are estimating the actual number of all protesters between 10,000 and 15,000, much below the claimed number of "100,000" in the media, and also so negligible comparing to any single protest of the same year (1979). Far larger demonstrations on the same day, in support of Ayatollah Khomeini and denunciation of these intrigues, went largely unreported in the Western press.

The presence of Kate Millett, Sophie Keir and foreign journalist crews, who arrived from the United States, reveal that the whole event was carefully planned. It is simply not possible the entire organization was the result of Khomeini's statement, given only a day earlier. Everything was planned much earlier: a 'spontaneous' journalist question, distortion of its answer, spreading of misinformation, arrival of foreign activists, attempts of hijacking the march, international promotion, and so on. The Communist fractions, seeing their lack of support among the working class in Iran, have tried to seize upon a number of marginal issues and build them up as vehicles for their own attempts to gain power, but failed miserably.

They were not supported even by secular and nationalist organizations that had, in principle, favored women's rights and social advancement. In the name of revolutionary unity, these organizations viewed such women's protests as diversionary and chose not to support them. Women with skepticism about revolutionary intentions had their chance to vote against Khomeini and his comrades who were openly advocating the restoring of original dress-code, because referendum about Islamic Republic was held three weeks after International Women's Day. Of course, women participated in this referendum and it was approved by over 99% of voters, while only 0.69% voted against and additionally 2% abstained from voting.

Finally, reveiling process took five years to complete, after long and complex polemics among Iranian women themselves. In meanwhile, women wrote articles in various papers, held meetings at different universities, and actively spoke and lectured in meetings, public institutions, and rallies. In 1983, a public dispute regarding the veiling broke out, but it was motivated only by the definition of veiling and it's scale (so-called "bad hijab" issue), and it was sometimes followed even by clashes against those who were perceived to wear improper clothing. Government felt obligated to deal with this situation, so on 26 July 1984 Tehran's public prosecutor issued a statement and announced that 'stricter' dress-code is supposed to be observed in public places such as institutions, theaters, clubs, hotels, motels and restaurants, while in the other places it should follow the pattern of the overwhelming majority of people.

The recent propaganda

The footage made by Kate Millett is still circulating widely on the Internet, along with photos by Hengameh Golestan, and are used for propaganda by leftists and even monarchists, despite the fact that most organizers were actually Communists and opposed the Shah. The most radical examples include Mina Ahadi and Maryam Namazie, European-based members of Worker-Communist Party of Iran, notable for their pseudofeminist misrepresentation and lies about various women's and political topics. On her blog, Namazie frequently publishes myths on every International Women's Day, and one of the most bizarre article posted there (written by her comrade Sohaila Sharifi) includes a dramatized claim that Khomeini's tip for wearing a headscarf in March 1979 was not only 'command' but also a religious 'fatwa.' Slightly less radical examples include other Western-based leftist activists like Mahnaz Matin and Nasser Mohajer from communist Tudeh Party, whose publication about the protest includes exaggerating number of protesters by tenfold, heavy confirmation bias and even conspiracy theories about 'stolen revolution' (frequent in leftist circles).

Misusing of event is less common among monarchist activists, considering friction between them and leftists, but still quite prevalent. To cite one example, anonymous American charlatan under the pseudonym Freedom44 has published a blog in 2004 which claims "the radical 20% forced their ideology on the majority of opposing Iranians" and event included "demonstration of hundreds of thousands, close to a million" women. Beside Iranian exiles, various other Westerners have used event for their own political agenda, namely American Islamophobic activist Robert Spencer on his website Jihad Watch (2014), and atheist activist Ali A. Rizvi from Richard Dawkins Foundation (2015), an organization which comically ironic self-proclaimed mission is "to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding."

The most recently, such propaganda has found a new avenue of expression on the virtual social networks, with the most popular example being the Facebook campaign "My Stealthy Freedom" led by London-based journalist Masih Alinejad, an employee of the US governmental propaganda machine Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In the Balkans, the photo above with a distorted was promoted by individuals like Miljenko Hajdarović, Neven Barković, Zoran Ivančić and Nada Topić Peratović (a personal friend of Maryam Namazie), all of them members of the US-sponsored NGOs.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.