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Why the hijab is at the center of protests in Iran

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Protests in Iran following the killing of a young woman, Jina Amini, who also went by the first name of Mahsa, killed at the hands of the morality police last month. The protests center around the enforcement of the hijab, a modest Muslim dress code that requires women to cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothing. Assal Rad is the research director of the National Iranian American Council and the author of "State Of Resistance: Politics, Culture And Identity In Modern Iran." Thanks very much for joining us.

ASSAL RAD: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The hijab has been enforced for women in Iran since after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Why do we see such massive nationwide protests now?

RAD: Well, there were protests starting from 1979 against the mandatory hijab. In fact, it was announced - so the revolution was in February of 1979. On March 7 was sort of the announcement of the mandatory hijab. And the following day, which happened to be International Women's Day, Iranian women went to the streets to protest in large-scale protests even then, without the hijab. You know, if you're looking at these protests, they go much deeper to broader grievances within the society and really go to the core of the system.

SIMON: Well, tell us about some of those broader issues that are being raised.

RAD: Well, I mean, you have people who are chanting death to the dictator. That goes to the very core of the system, the idea of the supreme leadership. Iranians did not topple a dictatorship under the monarchy because they wanted a new form of tyranny under the Islamic Republic. The promises of the revolution were one of independence from foreign powers, but also freedom and democracy within the country itself. That is part of the grievances. Iranian civil society for over a century has been struggling in multiple revolutions and political moments to fulfill just simply having a government that carries out the will of the people.

SIMON: Let me return to trying to understand the hijab as a symbol, because we've seen women who wear hijabs and are also in the protests chanting against enforcing that edict. And also, of course, there are reports that there are a number of clerics that don't support the enforcement of the hijab.

RAD: There was a statement from reformists saying that the morality police should be abolished and that the dress code should be changed. And because it is a theocratic state, because there is a cleric that sits at the top of the system, sometimes there is this misunderstanding that this is a unanimous decision within the clerical body. That's not true within the country, and it's certainly not true within the larger, like, Muslim community. And at the core of it in terms of the freedom is a freedom of choice.

SIMON: What did the hijab represent before the revolution, during the time of the shah?

RAD: Well, the hijab during the time of the shah was actually used as a symbol of resistance as well. And so that's one of the things to keep in mind when we're looking at these protests and the fact that women's rights and the hijab is at the center of it. It's not necessarily a protest against the religion at large, right? It is a protest against the enforcement, the compulsory hijab. And that's why that symbol was used in reverse before the revolution.

SIMON: How do you account for the fierce reaction of the government to the protests?

RAD: The officials of the state are more concerned with their own ability to survive than heeding the calls of their people. I mean, that is indicative of why these protests go beyond the veil. If you watch the reaction of the state, the fact that they're trying to squash protests, the fact they're using deadly force to squash protests really is indicative of what the core issues of the state are.

SIMON: To what degree do you think these protests might actually lead to overturning the Islamic Republic?

RAD: You know, I am hesitant to make predictions. I think what we can say, especially when you look at the historical record, is that Iranians will continue to resist until their desire to have a government that puts their needs over the authoritarianism state - they will continue to resist. What I think is important about this moment is that we're seeing more organizing across the spectrum, different sections of the society really calling for fundamental change. And if they don't get it immediately, that doesn't mean that it's not a movement, and that doesn't mean that it's not going to continue.

SIMON: Assal Rad is research director of the National Iranian American Council. Thank you so much for being with us.

RAD: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.