| My Stealthy Freedom |
Project on forced hijab in Iran © 2017
- LensCulture Portrait Awards 2017, Winner Juror's Pick
This project reflects on forced hijab, the much hated symbol of oppression for so many women.
Every day, Iranians, especially the women, defy the regime courageously by small acts of defiance. By wearing the hijab too low, the colors too bright, the pants too tight or the manteau too short. Together these constant acts of bravery are affecting change, slowly but visibly evolving. The regime responds to this with regular crack-downs - when women are arrested and harassed - and by creating new laws, like the recent ban for women to ride a bicycle.
With the windows of my Tehran apartment covered with tinfoil so that the flash would not be visible from outside, we were safe to create and let creativity flow. The women threw their brightly colored headscarf in the air and as it inescapably floated back to them, I captured this act of defiance.
Below you’ll find a few reflections of their feelings:
“As a girl, I did not want to follow a rule that was forced on me! But I had to, cuz if something is not obeyed here, there will be consequences! And I did not wanted to trouble myself or my family in any way! So I followed but that did not made me a believer! From the time I went to school I always heard that we all are brothers and sisters! That we are all equal! But in real life.. well there was no equality! Coz I had to cover up for the men! How is that equal?! How come they didn’t have to cover up for me?!”
“Revolution happened Iran before I was born, two years before so when I grew up I thought this is how it must be, women should look like that, but when I checked my mom's photo or I saw movies I found a paradox, why there is difference between us and the other little girls in other countries? I grew up with this paradox, all my teenage hood and after it I had this war inside myself that I didn't want to wear scarfs or long shirts, I wanted to have wind in my hair, being exposed to sunlight like a normal person! But I didn't get the real truth until the government made some special police for compulsory hijab called "gashte ershad " when I got arrested by police and they treat me like a criminal (taking my photo with name , fingerprint,..) I got the bitter truth, I felt like a bird getting stuck in a cage, my natural way of living is different than the way our government and society forced me to be, all my life I tried to respect others believes but literally no one in government has respected mine, at least it has been 10 years that every time I want to go out I felt someone’s oppression and injustice on my head, I really feel imprisoned in scarf and hijab.”
“My parents were communists, they fought for freedom against the Shah, and then were betrayed by Khomeini and his regime. I carry their fire for freedom in me. After the government repressed the Green Movement in 2009, many of the young people have given up hope. But I haven’t. When I look around in the streets and see the bright colors, the girls wearing the hijabs so low with their hair showing, I see hope. I see change. Even 5 years ago it was all brown and black, like the regime wants. But now colors, colors, colors! So every day I wear my bright colored hijab and get on my bike (which is against the law now) to defy the regime. And I will live my life and not hide who I am. I have hope."
“As an Iranian peace activist, I always suffered from the compulsory hijab in my country. I always felt the pressure of being controlled. In recent years, when I could travel to other countries, for the first time in my life I felt the amazing sense of wind circulation in my hair. This is so saddening; people in other countries never appreciate what they have because they are not aware that there are countries where women are still fighting for their basic needs. The burden is beyond imagination of foreigners, but this is just the tip of the iceberg."
My experience on compulsary hijab in Iran
A lot of times in Iran, I did not wear the compulsary headscarf. I was amazed by the responses in the street. Women coming up to me, thanking me, hugging me, wanting to be in the picture with me.
Everyone smiling and waving, I felt like a symbol of freedom.
Only once did I encounter a negative response, a man making a hand gesture that must be oh so familiar for Iranian women. I was astounded by my own response. I got very angry that a stranger felt that he could tell me what to do. I felt it to my core. I yelled at him 'I do not know you, you cannot tell me what to do' and shook my hair in his direction. I have never felt such a pure surge of outrage before.
That was only one time, but I still feel it. The indignity of it. Iranian women endure this every day.
I know that being a foreigner gave me the freedom to defy the law. Only that fact gave me the space to do so.
When I returned to Amsterdam, I felt the tremedous strain the gender-based restrictions had put on me. I had not fully realized that the regime's restrictive rules had affected me that much. When I was there, I was more aware of the immense kindness of Iranian people and their easy acceptance of me. But upon return at Schiphol and later in Amsterdam, I kept jumping around and dancing, skipping and twirling, loving the freedom to do so and not to worry about the length of my blouse, my hair, my body and about the constant looming potential of getting punished for doing something wrong or breaking some repressive rule. At Schiphol, while dancing and twirling, clapping my hands and singing, I had an overwhelming urge to kiss the ground. My partner compared me with those videos when animals are released, frolicking happily in the grass, and I realized that he was right. That was exactly how I felt. An immense surge of happines and freedom.
A release of the constant pressure. Allowed to move freely again. To express myself. To not worry whether the countoures of my body might be showing. To not worry whether I finally pushed the boundaries too far.
To. Be. Free. Again.
For the first time in my life, I fully grasp the fundamental blessing of freedom and have tasted a small part of the suffocating effects of oppression, constantly looming, even when 'nothing happens'. It's there. It's always there. And it is suffocating, oppressive and slowly eating away at your soul.
So much of who I am is because freedom has allowed me to be.
Masih Alinejad, the tireless activist against forced hijab calls upon all foreign female visitors to Iran to NOT wear the headscarf in support of the fight for freedom for women in Iran.