Issue #145 When Silence Is Broken and Voices Ring Out

When Silence Is Broken and Voices Ring Out


International Women’s Day protests in Tehran, March 1979. Photo: Mohammad Sayyad. License: Public domain.

Issue #145
May 2024

For Sediqeh Dowlatabadi, who was the voice of the women of her generation.1

For Jina Amini, who opened her mouth in protest and was murdered because of it, but whose name became our symbol.

For Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, who write with brave voices and have been imprisoned since the beginning of the Jina uprising.

And for all rebellious, disobedient, and tongue-ful women in Iran.2

“Liberation is global, not Eastern or Western.”


On March 8, 1979 and for five days after, the streets of Tehran, covered in heavy snow, were the scene of protests and resistance by women who opposed the mandatory hijab. These protests took place less than a month after the victory of the anti-shah movement; they were the first of their kind against the newly established government of Ruhollah Khomeini.

A day earlier, on March 7, Khomeini had delivered a speech to seminary students in Qom. Explaining how government officials should handle “un-Islamic” attire worn by women, he said: “Naked women must not enter Islamic ministries. They can enter, but only with a hijab.”3

The next day, during the International Women’s Day ceremony at Tehran University, thousands of women took to the streets, chanting furiously against Khomeini’s order. “In the spring of liberation, we are missing liberation!” they shouted, along with “Liberation is global, not Eastern or Western!”4 The majority of these women were middle class; they worked as government employees or teachers, or were university or high school students. Those among them who were political activists had taken to the streets without being instructed to by the parties they belonged to. Anti-shah leftist and nationalist parties had abandoned these women, since they saw their fight as a distraction from the cause of revolution and deemed the protesting women bourgeois.5

The marching women were met by a row of radical Islamists holding broken bottles, knives, and batons. These nervous Muslims who, in the years prior to the Islamic Revolution, had called women without hijabs “Western dolls,” “puppets of the Taghut,”6 and “Westoxified,” screamed in the faces of these so-called anti-revolutionary women: “Either wear the hijab or get hit in the head!” These angry men lifted up the skirts of protesting women, calling them “sluts” and “cheap whores.” They flashed their penises at them, saying, “You don’t want liberation, you want this!” During the six days that these women protested and held sit-ins and public discussions, many would return home each day with bleeding heads and faces, angry and disenchanted. They could not believe that a government that had been established with their participation could commit such violence against them.

I asked my mother, who was a teenager during the revolution, how she remembered the process of the hijab becoming mandatory:

I remember one day when we were dismissed from our class that prepared us for university entrance exams. The class was held in a building near the city center. I was wearing a short-sleeve blouse and a skirt that covered my knees. When I reached the exit door, I saw a few members of a paramilitary militia7 marching with batons, yelling and attacking women without hijabs. Some of them chanted, “Either wear the hijab or get hit in the head!” To this day, the wounded, bleeding face of a girl on the street, roughly my age, is burned into my memory. I got scared and ran back into the classroom. I waited a few hours, and later my chemistry teacher drove me home. I hated the headscarf but I was also afraid to leave the house. So I ended up staying home. For about three years after that day, I almost never left the house. And if I was forced to go outside, I would only walk through the back alleys of my neighborhood, which I knew well.

In another 1979 speech, Khomeini articulated his vision of society’s ideal sexual order:

Islam prevents lust. Islam does not allow [people] to go swim naked in these seas. It will skin them alive! They go there with these naked women, and then these naked women come to the cities! Like what would happen in the time of the Taghut. If these things continue to happen today, the people will skin them. The people are Muslim. This is what they want from Civilization. This is what they [women without hijabs] want from liberation! They want Western liberation but the government will stop them. If the government does not, the people will stop them.8

In his speeches, Khomeini incited revolutionary Muslim men to attack women without hijabs. In the anti-imperialist Islamism of the revolutionaries, women without hijabs were the symbol of “Westoxification” and imperialism. One of the threats posed by the West to Muslim society was the loss of men’s control over female sexuality. For these men, the sight of women without hijabs in the public sphere was so painful that they regarded any delay by the new government in cracking down on it as synonymous with the loss of revolutionary ideals.

Khomeini and his followers did not deem this crackdown as solely the government’s responsibility. Pushing back against women without hijabs was the responsibility of each and every Muslim. It was a revolutionary responsibility, a religious duty. Husbands, fathers, and brothers had to monitor their female family members and suppress women without hijabs in the streets. Every woman without a hijab had to be confronted by a row of Muslim men so that bihijabi (“no-hijab” or “unveiled”) was completely eradicated.

Attacks and sexual assaults against women on the pretext of enforcing the hijab showed that in this new Iran, the hijab was no longer a matter of “culture” or “convention” but a crucial marker for establishing the Islamic government in the symbolic order. Iran was supposed to become the ideal of a Muslim country, so much so that any traveler in the streets of Iran could, at a glance, see its superior sexual order. The hijab was imposed on the heads and bodies of women after the 1979 revolution by a primitive form of patriarchal rule. With the help of his “sons,” Khomeini, this new yet old father, was determined to place middle class women without hijabs—the Western-oriented Pahlavi regime’s most important cultural symbol—at the center of the new political discourse. Or more accurately, to displace them from it. Sixteen years prior to spearheading the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini had objected to Reza Shah Pahlavi’s 1936 kashf-e hijab (unveiling) decree, which prohibited the wearing of hijabs in public: “Twenty-something years have passed since this ignominious kashf-e hijab. Look at what you’ve done. You have put women into governmental organizations. You can see that every governmental organization that now has women in it has become paralyzed.”9 In the position of father and leader, Khomeini asked every one of his sons to return women to the pastoo—the pastoo of the house and the hijab.10


Death to whomever desires to bury women alive.

—Mirzadeh Eshghi, The Black Shroud, 1915

Khomeini and his followers’ hatred of unveiled women was directly connected to the kashf-e hijab movement in early twentieth-century Iran. The anti-hijab movement emerged shortly after the success of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution (1905–11) against the absolute power of the Qajar kings. This revolution succeeded under the banner of “equality and brotherhood.” Shortly afterward, whispers against the hijab surfaced in the writings of both women and men. However, the main demands of the Iranian people at the time concerned the “growth of the home country” and progress towards the “gates of civilization.”11

In the history of struggles between nationalists and Islamists to win votes in Iran, the issue of women has been articulated in multiple evolving ways. The significance of the hijab has at times been presented in the context of women’s mothering role and the importance of their reproductive power in raising patriotic children; at other times, women have been portrayed as capable citizens eager to build the nation-state of Iran. In the early twentieth century, the issue of the hijab was at sometimes linked to women’s health and their lack of movement; at other times, it was thought of as a symbol of their erasure from public and cultural life.

In 1920, the poet and constitutional activist Mirzadeh Eshghi published his lyric play The Black Shroud in the short-lived biweekly feminist publication Women’s Letter. The narrator of Eshghi’s story visits Iran’s ancient historical sites. In the face of ancient ruins, he reminisces about his country’s past glory and grieves for it. In a ruined building from the Sassanid Empire, he encounters a heaving black body, which he eventually realizes is a sick and fatigued woman wrapped in a black chador (a head-to-toe cloth covering). The woman explains to the narrator the oppression she has experienced at the hands of her countrymen:

My only sin is that of being a woman

It is because of this sin that I will remain enshrouded while I am alive

I am wearing black, and up until the day I take this black [cloth] off my body

Your luck will remain dark and miserable because I am your luck

I am the person who can turn your luck around12

The woman (a metaphor for the lamentable and heartsick motherland of Iran) alerts the narrator (a symbol of the nationalist Iranian man) that the chador functions as her death shroud. The chador is framed as a symbol of the misfortune and death of Iranian women, and the salvation of Iran and its men is contingent upon their liberation. This liberation is only possible by ripping apart the chador/shroud.

Twenty years after the publication of The Black Shroud, the connection that Eshghi drew between the development of Iran and the unveiling of women was so influential among intellectuals that they ardently supported the kashf-e hijab decree. Among the activists, writers, and thinkers who supported the decree were women such as Khadijeh Afzal Vaziri, Sediqeh Dowlatabadi, Shahnaz Roshdieh, Mastoureh Afshar, Fakhr-e Ozma Arghun, and Mehr Taj-Rakhshan, and men such as Ali-Akbar Davar, Ebrahim Khajenoori, Abolghasem Azad Maraghei, Saeed Nafisi, and Ahmad Kasravi.13

The decree was the result of a discourse that had been growing for at least two decades among Iranian nationalists. The years prior to the kashf-e hijab order saw the publication of an influential collection of feminist texts about the meaning of the hijab, evolving ideas of chastity and honor, and changing gender roles in the family and society. Supporters of the decree turned to these texts to argued that bihijabi was no longer a symbol of women’s unchasteness but a sign of progress. Similar to other discourses of modernity, however, the kashf-e hijab discourse impacted the lives of Iranian women in two contradictory ways. On one hand, the compulsory nature of kashf-e hijab accelerated the disciplining of women’s bodies and the erasure of traditional femininity; on the other, it made women’s active participation in society possible.14

In summer 1981, protestors demonstrated in front of the prime minister’s office against the mandatory hijab in government offices. The banner reads “The Iranian warrior woman won’t be enslaved.”

After Reza Shah, the first Pahlavi monarch, resigned in 1941, his eldest son, Mohammad Reza, was crowned the new monarch. Many women who had obeyed the decree then put their chador and hijab back on, though many urban women continued to go unveiled. The kashf-e hijab decree infuriated the clerics so much that to this day, after nearly ninety years, Iranian Islamists still hate the Pahlavi monarchy for it. Opponents of the Pahlavi monarchy regarded the increased presence of middle class women in the streets, wearing makeup and short skirts, dancing in clubs with male friends, frequenting cafes, movie theaters, and universities, as the greatest symbol of the Pahlavi regime’s “Westoxification.”


The occidentotic is effete. He is effeminate.

—Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Occidentosis: A Plague from the West, 1962

The 1960s saw the emergence of a new discourse, one that had a fundamental impact on the intellectuals who took to the streets against the Shah fifteen years later and united with Khomeini: the discourse of authenticity and third-worldist power. With an emphasis on imperialism and indigenous culture, this discourse produced writing that intertwined the intelligentsia’s hatred of Western imperialism, of the Pahlavi government, and of the government’s Western-oriented view of modernization.15 The most important book written in this period was Occidentosis by Jalal Al-e Ahmad.16 Al-e Ahmad’s examination of the manifestations of Westoxification in Iranian society, chief among them the attire and manners of middle class women, left a deep impression on generations of Iranian intellectuals. Al-e Ahmad regarded these “occidentotic” women as vacuous, peacockish, and without character:

So we really have given women only the right to parade themselves in public. We have drawn women, the preservers of tradition, family, and future generations, into vacuity, into the street. We have forced them into ostentation and frivolity, every day to freshen up and try on a new style and wander around. What of work, duty, social responsibility, and character? There are very few women concerned with such things anymore.17

Al-e Ahmad directs his hatred towards “occidentotic” men as well, calling them foppish and effeminate:

The occidentotic is effete. He is effeminate. He attends to his grooming a great deal. He spends much time sprucing himself up. Sometimes he even plucks his eyelashes. He attaches a great deal of importance to his shoes and his wardrobe, and to the furnishings of his home. It always seems he has been unwrapped from gold foil or come from some European “maison.”18

Reza Baraheni, one of Iran’s most prominent poets and intellectuals and a close friend of Al-e Ahmad, held similar ideas about urban and middle class women:

The Iranian woman of the past … was a good housewife, she understood affection and purity and at least she was filled with a sense of self-sacrifice for those around her. The urban woman is losing even these basic human characteristics. She has learned boundless promiscuity and uninhibitedness from the West and after she put aside the chador, she took a leap to the most ignoble of gatherings in order to arrive at the frontlines of the world’s “cultured women,” and we see how, after taking this leap, on the other side of these lines, she is falling into a nonsensical and nihilistic obscenity, and mire covers her face and head.19

Baraheni’s words were written a few years after the success of the Islamic Revolution, at the peak of women’s oppression. But the notion of “occidentotic” women’s promiscuity was by no means foreign to the discourse of Iranian leftists. In 1983, the year Khomeini issued an edict requiring women to wear hijabs, the newspaper Haqiqat, an organ of an Iranian Maoist group, denounced the “gaudy” and “repulsive” attire of bourgeois women, connecting it to the imperialist West:

Communists strongly oppose obscenity and women and men’s gaudy and repulsive clothing, and they will not allow the spread of the rotten, backward culture of imperialism under the pretext of freedom. In their mind, women are not objects to be colored and varnished, and exhibited according to the daily fashion. In their mind, women are not objects of men’s debauchery and tools to fulfill their sexual desires so that they may come to the streets and bazaars with gaudy and repulsive clothes and propagate depravity. Communists know better than anybody else how the bourgeoisie that rule imperial countries have made objects out of women.20

This language displays an eerie similarity to the writings of Murtaza Mutahhari, one of the most important theoreticians of the Islamic hijab in Iran:

This disgraceful situation of bihijabi … is one of the characteristics of evil Western capitalistic societies … A woman’s honor necessitates that she be composed, reserved, and gracious when she exits the house, that in her behavior and choice of dress, she does not deliberately intend to arouse or stimulate men, does not effectively invite them towards her, does not dress tongue-fully, does not tongue-fully and meaningfully color her speech with rhythm, because sometimes gestures speak, the way a human walks speaks; the way she actually speaks is another matter.21

These two texts are connected by a foregrounding of the objectification of women in the West and a rejection of Western imperialism’s penetration into indigenous Iranian culture. At the time of their publication, the texts were by no means exceptional or controversial. Fifteen years prior to the 1979 revolution—a revolution during which Muslim men violently threatened women in the streets—intellectuals such as Al-e Ahmad, in sync with Islamists, introduced misogyny into the political discourse of the anti-monarchy movement. Like the Islamist revolutionaries, such intellectuals believed that unveiled middle class women were parasites without dignity who dressed to attract men and propagate depravity.

Print from Ettela’at Daily, February 1979: “Wide coverage of Imam’s view on the hijab.”

In 1980, during a conversation with a group of French feminists, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, one of the most important clerics after the revolution and a member of the Assembly of Experts, contrasted women’s rights in Islam with women’s rights in Europe: “First one must provide a definition of rights … If women’s rights means offering women as sexual objects, that which exists in European countries, where the woman has no right except for offering and selling herself as a sexual object, this is the negation of women’s rights.”22

That same year on March 8, International Women’s Day, the magazine Ketab-e Jom’e (The book of Friday), helmed by prominent leftist poet Ahmad Shamlou, underlined the importance of distinguishing between hard-working revolutionary women and bourgeois women:

One year has passed since the brave movement and protest of the nation’s women on March 8 … but in our homeland some media and national television officials took a stance against these women’s revolutionary act. By focusing the camera lens on the faces of a small number of women in full makeup, the media misrepresented the reality on the ground, trying hard to portray the vast crowd of hard-working, intellectual, and revolutionary women as a small reactionary group closely connected to the SAVAK.23

Even in this description of women protesting for the right to control their own bodies, the leftist writer draws clear class divisions between these women. It’s as if the presence of a small number of affluent women in these protests embarrasses leftist intellectuals. In this account, what makes the privileged woman deserving of harassment is her clothing and makeup, her ostentation—in a word, the unapologetic expression of her sexuality.

At the time, it was commonly believed in Iran that there was no difference between the traditional headscarf of female laborers and the Islamic hijab. A flood of texts denouncing middle class women for wearing makeup convinced many women that that hijab was not a matter of religion or politics but of cultural difference among women. Meanwhile, many men had come to see the hijab as a tool of resistance against the monarchy and the West. They promoted “liberated” and “revolutionary” veiled women against “Western puppet women.” As Iranian feminist writer Nayereh Tohidi has argued,

In the list of the modern Iranian woman’s sins, in addition to the sins listed for the Western woman, there was the bigger sin of becoming the fifth column for Western imperialism’s motives and goals … The extent to which a woman was occidentotic was generally measured based on her attire, the amount of skin she showed, the way she wore makeup and styled her hair, her mannerisms and social behavior, and her mode and amount of presence in a public space. Attacks on occidentotic women … happened under the pretext of a Western-informed change in her social behavior, sexual behavior, and the way she presented herself.24

In this account, women revolutionaries either came from the working classes and wore the hijab customarily, or were women who consciously rejected makeup. In leftist groups, lipstick and short skirts were forbidden; any errors in dress or makeup that reeked of Westoxification led to prolonged “self-criticism” meetings.25 The binary of the liberated woman versus the Westoxified woman that emerged from the discourse of authenticity focused on women’s sexuality and the manner of its expression. In this discourse, the revolutionary woman was authentic, chaste, and self-sacrificing, while the bourgeois woman was ignorant, sexually promiscuous, and lacking in political agency. The bourgeois woman, protesting for the right to choose how to dress, was considered a puppet of the Pahlavi regime, in thrall to Western culture and superficial. Nothing more than a sexual object, her sole purpose in life was to fulfill the sexual desires of men.26

While writing this essay, I asked my parents about their memories of the hijab becoming mandatory. At the time of the 1979 revolution, my father was a young man in his twenties. He was a passionate, educated, secular revolutionary who, like his father and grandfather, was active in various leftist parties. While my mother shared her memories of the violence inflicted on unveiled women by paramilitary militias, my father said he didn’t remember much. “In the beginning, there were only a few women who put on headscarves,” he said. “But slowly the headscarf became obligatory.” I asked him, “Did you attend any of the protests against the mandatory hijab?” He replied, “No. We considered these protests to be part of the counterrevolutionary movement. No one thought the hijab would actually become mandatory.” I asked him about his female colleagues in the leftist parties. I wondered about their opinions of the mandatory hijab, whether they accepted it easily or debated it with their male comrades. There was a long pause. “I don’t remember,” he said.

This gap in my father’s memory reminds me of the persistent silences in the writings of male leftist during the years after the revolution and in the decades since. With few exceptions, only leftist women have indicted left-wing parties in Iran for their refusal to oppose the mandatory hijab and for the sexism of party members. The powerful have a shorter memory and, with an easy conscience, accept their own silences. The silence of my father and his male comrades make the memories of my apolitical mother even more painful. She was just a middle class girl who dreamed of a university education and an independent life in the big city. A girl who, because of the way she dressed, was regarded as a Westoxified puppet by the male intellectuals of her generation. Her right to liberation and life, like the rights of many other women, was forgotten in the chaos of the revolutionary uprising of men. She was a girl who was forced to stay home for three years after the revolution. Who witnessed the murder and stoning of her female friends at the hands of the regime. The Islamic Revolution forever changed the course of her life, just like it changed that of many other women in Iran. In the face of this painful reality, men like my father have only one thing to say, shamelessly repeated over decades of regime violence against women: “I don’t remember.”


One of the first Iranian feminists, Sediqeh Dowlatabadi (1882–1961) was the editor in chief of the magazine Women’s Tongue. The name of the magazine was a subversion of the idea, popular at the time, that women who had “long tongues” and talked back should be punished.


Trans. note: In most of this text we have translated the Farsi term “zabaan”—literally “tongue”—as “voice.” Here, however, we invented the word “tongue-ful” to emphasize how the tongue can become a weapon. The Farsi expression “zaboon dar avordi”—“you have grown a tongue”—is used when someone is deemed disrespectful for speaking out of turn or saying something unwelcome. So being “tongue-ful” means refusing to succumb to the forces that want you to hold your tongue, or that seek to cut it out.


Ruhollah Khomeini, Sahifeh-e Imam: Oassese-ye Tanzim va Nashr Asar-e Imam khomeini (Sahifeh-e Imam: An Anthology of Imam Khomeini’s Speeches, Messages, Interviews, Decrees, Religious Permissions, and Letters) (Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 2007), 329.


Trans. note: for more context see .


A detailed account of the six days of unrest can be found in Mahnaz Matin and Nasser Mohajer, Iranian Women’s Uprising, March 8, 1979, vol. 1 and 2 (Noghteh, 2013 and 2010).


Trans. note: the literal translation of this term is “tyrant” but at the time it was used as a shorthand for the Shah’s government, an “earthly tyranny” that did not follow the rule of God.


Trans. note: broadly known as “the Basij.”


Speech given at the Qom Feyziyeh School, March 7, 1979.


Khomeini, Sahifeh-e Imam, 118.


Trans. note: In traditional Persian houses, the pastoo is a closed-off, hidden space (usually behind a larger room) where food is stored. Resembling a small pantry or closet, it is used exclusively by women.


Trans. note: for an in-depth discussion of the Constitutional Revolution—a complex turning point in Iranian history—see .


Mirzadeh Eshghi, Koliyat-e Mosavar-e Mirzadeh Eshghi (The complete Mirzadeh Eshghi illustrated collection), ed. Mashir Salimi and Ali Akbar (Amir Kabir, 1979).


Gholamreza Salami and Afsaneh Najmabadi, Nehzat-e Nesvan-e Shargh (Eastern women’s congress) (Shiraz, 2011).


Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards (University of California Press, 2005), 181–206.


Shirin Nabavi, Intellectuals and the State in Iran: Politics, Discourse, and the Dilemma of Authenticity (University Press of Florida, 2003), 123–95.


Trans. note: The title of the book in Farsi is Gharbzadegi, which, according to Liora Hendelman-Baavur, can be translated into English in various ways: “Occidentosis,” “Westernism,” “Occidentalization,” “Weststruckness,” “West-strickenness,” “Westities,” “Xenomania,” “Westomania,” and “Euromania.” She states, however, that “by far the predominant translation in English references” is “Westoxication.” Hendelman-Baavur, “The Odyssey of Jalal Al-Ahmad’s Gharbzadegi – Five Decades After,” in Persian Language, Literature and Culture: New Leaves, Fresh Looks, ed. Kamran Talattof (Routledge, 2015), 260. The translation of Al-e Ahmad’s book quoted in the present essay uses the term “Occidentosis.”


Al-e Ahmad, Occidentosis: A Plague from the West, trans. Roger Campbell (2004), 70 .


Al-e Ahmad, Occidentosis, 96.


Reza Barahani, Tarikh-e Mozakar (Masculine history: A thesis on cultural dispersion in Iran) (Nashr-e Aval, 1963).


Haqiqat, no. 81 (June 23, 1980), 4. Trans. note: “haqiqat” means “truth.”


Morteza Motahari, Masale-ye Hjab (The question of hijab) (Sadra Publishing, 2000), 85, 93. Trans. note: for “tongue-fully” see footnote 2.


Quoted in Matin and Mohajer, Iranian Women’s Uprising, March 8, 1979, vol. 2.


Ketab-e Jom’e, no. 30 (March 8, 1980), 14. Trans. note: “SAVAK” is an acronym for “Sazman-e Ettela’at va Amniyat-e Keshvar,” or “Organization of National Security and Information.” It was a loathed and violent government department chiefly responsible for creating an atmosphere of fear and repression, with moles infiltrating all layers of society.


Quoted in Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Hijab va Roshanfekran (The hijab and intellectuals) (Nasher Moallef, 2011), 165.


Khorasani, Hijab, 160; and Haideh Moghissi, Populism and Feminism in Iran (Macmillan, 1996).


Kar (Labor), no. 16 (May 1979).

Feminism, Religion & Spirituality
Iran, Middle East, Protests & Demonstrations, Revolution, Islam
Return to Issue #145

Translated from the Farsi by Niloufar Nematollahi. Translation edited by Soori Parsa.

Arnavaz is a feminist activist and a researcher in sociology and gender studies.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.