Issue #145 Heads Without Headscarves

Heads Without Headscarves

Negar Hatami

High school students leading the protests during the Jina uprising.

Issue #145
May 2024

As I write this, a year has passed since the Woman, Life, Freedom movement was sparked. This essay initially took shape as a collection of short paragraphs, in the form of journal entries addressed to a friend who got arrested during the uprising. I have kept the order of these entries but have reshaped them into expressions of my internal feelings and of the experiences I shared with other women. As I reworked the entries, new meanings came to light that were previously unknown to me. Feelings of bewilderment and astonishment are common in the descriptions of the singular moments of this movement—moments when the symbolic power and policing of the mandatory hijab shattered and an uncanny embodied experience was born in its stead. Recording and editing these scattered daily writings during the past twelve months has gradually shed light on a series of embodied maxims that have co-risen with this movement. Resonating with Chris Shilling’s theory that the body is a site of sociological meaning, in every phase of the movement these changes became manifest in our behavior and cognition.1 I ultimately reached the conclusion that as a result of this movement’s train of events, a new body has opened up to us that we haven’t experienced before.

Undoubtedly, there are methodological limitations in attempting a phenomenological description of personal experiences during the tumultuous year of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. The emotions involved are exceptionally recent, and perhaps to portray a landscape, more distance is required than I currently have. Sometimes, clarity necessitates time. The sociological terminology I use may not be theoretically precise, as something new like this movement likely requires new terms of its own. Despite these potential shortcomings, I felt compelled to publish these writings now, recognizing the ever-present threat of scrutiny by masculinist epistemologies in academia. What’s more, some of these experiences might be overlooked by mainstream political discourses and media. Both assume the unwarranted authority to reshape narratives and impose interpretations that challenge and negate the individual experiences of those involved.


In the last three months, it has felt like a new body has been shedding its skin inside of us. I’m not talking about bravery; nor is this an attempt to describe the body as a site of resistance. This pertains to the direct relationship between the scope of apprehension and cognition and the sensations we experience through our five senses. My senses are receiving something from the streets that is changing how I understand my body. I have read numerous analyses and interpretations, yet it seems as though the Woman, Life, Freedom movement is a colossal flood that stretches beyond the scope of my vision, gradually eroding my capacity to articulate or grasp it with the familiar words and discourses I have known thus far. All our daily conversations are simply chronicles of being astonished by these moments. We moved our headscarves from our heads to around our necks. Then we moved them inside our handbags. Sometimes we have dispensed with them altogether. But is the absence of a piece of fabric the only thing that has shifted in our lives? What is shifting beyond this material experience? How can this transcend mere experience and become a problematic?


Recently, a famous actress whom I had always seen wearing a hijab published a photo of herself without a headscarf for the first time. Today, I stared at her photo for a few seconds: her arms, her voluminous hair, her hairline. My curiosity about her evoked childhood memories of when I would see my schoolteacher at women’s gatherings without a hijab. This astonishment at the celebrity’s unveiled image is similar to the feeling I had two years ago when I saw some of my new colleagues without face masks for the first time. Each of these moments opens a passage that restructures the “interaction order” anew—an order that needs to adapt its embodied information to newfangled impressions.2 Our eyes capture a new image, our senses receive the new visual information, and thus our intellect must fill the void of the veil. It needs to comprehend the body in a new semantic order that is no longer governed by the former embodied constitution. It must create a new meaning for the celebrity’s body that contradicts its previous conventional representation and presents itself in a different way. We have had similar but quotidian experiences of encountering new “bodily orders” in the past, too.3 For example, when we have seen a woman from the gym outside of that female “ghetto” wearing a scarf and manteau, or sometimes even with a chador, we have been unable recognize and identify each other after this 180-degree change in our attire.4 In all these examples, whether it’s a brief encounter at a party or a short interaction on the street, we receive new images of each other that can’t be equated with our previous comprehension of the teacher or our gym companion. We have experienced the same feelings of bewilderment lately when we see women with altered coverings in the streets.

We have had pluralistic and contrary embodied selves in public and private spaces, formal and informal, work and school. To some degree, these days this change in attire is bringing these bodies closer to one another. We used to be women with fragmented figures in the public and private spheres. Contrary rules of attire used to prevent the formulation of a cohesive image of our physical body.5 But now, we encounter a body that presents a more cohesive and shared image of itself in different spaces.

In the past our bodies have resembled fragments of shattered pottery, carefully divided across various public and private realms. Yet with the dynamic shifts brought about by these movements, we are now distancing ourselves from that fractured embodiment. The war between formal and informal bodies, which once besieged our individual presentation, is evolving into an embodied harmony.

It’s as if the broken pieces are being delicately put back together, like a photograph that was once torn apart. The amalgamation of these diverse bodies is likely one of the unnamed transformations we’ve been sensing lately, as we have been captivated by the experience yet constrained by a limited vocabulary to fully articulate it.


In the winter we realized that with every external change, we have to redefine our relationship to this new body and develop new strategies of dress so we don’t revert to the past. For example, as I write these sentences, an intriguing phenomenon is unfolding as the temperature drops. This body has a new grasp on temperature, the cold, and heat. Our previous attire altered our thresholds for enduring cold and heat. A (woman) friend said that her ears are nipped by the biting wind but she still won’t wrap a scarf around her head. This new body requires new forms of protection against the cold: strategies that can protect our unveiled heads from the winter cold, yet do not adhere to the force of the hijab. The sale of beanies has increased in the market, and more women are buying winter earmuffs, which in urban centers like Tehran has turned into a new fashion trend.


It was only when we removed the scarf that we realized that this piece of cloth also acted to hide our bosoms. When the shawl and manteau were replaced by T-shirts, we found ourselves in the midst of a new internal battle. On the one hand, those who used scarves and veils to conceal their bust size or cover the gaps between their manteau buttons cannot easily let go of that inclination. For these women, the scarf’s absence has altered the nuances of their bodily movements and their arm and hand gestures when walking. Some friends mention that since the scarf is no longer there, they hold on to the edges of their button-down shirt so it doesn’t slide away from their bosom, or they slouch so that the curvature of their bosom is less visible. Or they find an excuse to wear their bags on the front. Another friend has been wearing small scarves around her neck to direct gazes away from her chest.

When spring arrives and the amount of clothing decreases, my bodily shame has a tighter grip on me than the ever-present possibility of being catcalled, sexually harassed, or arrested by the police for bihijabi (“no-hijab” or “unveiled”). The inner turmoil of this new body that resists the former prescripts can turn being in public space into a hysteric experience. Once, when I was wearing a button-down shirt in “men’s” length (i.e., shorter than for women), the anxiety of showing my buttocks in the street forced me to rush into the first shop to buy a shirt that was three centimeters longer than the one I was wearing. Just those few extra centimeters relieved my tension and anxiety. It’s as if the headscarf had imposed a different image of the female body, and now, its removal reveals that our bodies don’t fit into the molds of those previous ideals. For example, when a friend of mine wears T-shirts, she is met with reactions such as “You don’t have anything” or “You look like a boy.”6 She says it’s as if the act of removing her hijab has led to the denial of her gender. Another friend, who wore a crop top beneath her button-down shirt, said she was mocked for her dark skin color by a man who was neither dogmatically religious nor affiliated with the government. Our experience of unveiling is influenced by a certain definition of the “feminine ideal.” This emerging new body needs to be a specific size, a particular color, with hair well-groomed and styled, to be considered standard. When walking in the street with unkempt or unstyled hair, many of us have faced comments like “It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t remove your hijab.” While in the past we could simply put on a scarf without having to blow-dry our hair, now we have to spend more time beautifying ourselves. Beauty salons have said that more clients come in for hair blowouts before going out these days. My experience as an adult woman is that as the anxiety of arrest for unveiling diminishes, new bodily fragilities emerge—byproducts of having endured the enforced hijab and of patriarchal definitions of ideal femininity. This is why we need to be more vigilant about incorporating a discourse of resistance to describe this new body.

The hijab has always been encoded as protection for women. It seems that for some of us there is a subconscious conviction that the hijab protected us from patriarchal judgment. On the other hand, there are other women, mostly younger, who have a completely different response to this experience. With the hijab gone, they seem to believe that this body that used to endure constant surveillance and protection no longer needs to be protected at all. In urban spaces, I see women who move with more confidence. They play volleyball in parks without worrying about which parts of their bodies are visible when they jump, or ride bicycles without any apprehension about exposing their lower body. They embody an admirable degree of agency and refuse the prevailing expectations of their bodies. As such, they resist not only the police but also entrenched patriarchal definitions of the female body.


“Wearing long manteaus without a scarf looks so silly,” a friend said in the early months of the movement—a feeling not exclusive to her. The recent changes have prompted many of us to visit a tailor to shorten our shirts, T-shirts, or manteaus. Women’s experiences of appearing without a hijab and their new anxieties around greater visibility have infiltrated market trends. Manteaus have become shorter in the front—around the same length as men’s shirts—but have grown longer in the back. While mainstream retailers in traditional markets and street vendors in Tehran still display loose and long gowns, clothing in Instagram shops has quickly become shorter (probably because these shops are mostly managed by women). Some scarf shops have announced that they’re changing their business altogether, while others now stock new items, such as mini-scarves. There is even a new fashion trend, mostly among teenagers, of wearing mesh mini-scarves—a head covering that, while not adhering to the traditional mandatory hijab, can still calm internal anxiety or come in handy during a tense encounter with the police. However, most of these alternatives seem to be intermediary steps towards eliminating the hijab altogether. After a few months, the mini-scarves no longer have buyers.


This movement started with the monumental image of scarves, the symbol of patriarchal authority, burning. It continues to unfold every day. Even if we cannot prolong these moments, our existence remains a form of resistance. With the arrival of summer, the strict measures and surveillance have reached their peak. It has been six months and “tomorrow feels like an incomprehensible and lost concept.”7 The overwhelming presence of military guards has replace the morality police. While they don’t issue verbal threats, but they create a sense of intimidation and militarized surveillance. When we first started going out in public unveiled, we would regularly hear comments like “Well done,” “You make us proud,” and “Respect!,” along with meaningful smiles from passersby. Now being unveiled has become more ordinary and no one thanks us. So much the better that not wearing a hijab is seen as the new norm, but in such unsafe conditions we’d prefer that public displays of support continue.

I have the privilege of mostly commuting by car, but friends share regular experiences of warnings, threats, and attacks in the metro from hijab-wearing women or municipal staff who have been hired for this purpose. Many taxis do not pick up women without hijabs, after being warned that their cars will be impounded. Stories circulate on social media of app-based taxis forcing women out of the car mid-journey for the same reason. Recently, I was stopped by a police officer because of the short length of my shirt. I created a scene and swiftly freed myself from the predicament. More women have returned to headscarves. Many put a headscarf around their neck in the hope that it can give them an alibi in an encounter with authorities. A few women have been subjected to nighttime raids and arrests at their own homes—not for going without a hijab in public but for posting unveiled photos of themselves on social media. Other women who have gone unveiled have received long prison sentences or strange forms of punishment, like being forced to wash dead bodies in the morgue. Long detention periods for feminist activists8 have led to more conservative behavior, as the price for resisting the mandatory hijab increases exponentially. Malls, cafes, and shops have been shut down by the government because their customers weren’t wearing hijabs. In Tehran, a few cafes ignore this risk to avoid losing the trust of their customers. However, in smaller towns and cities, not only do cafes post signs saying “No entry without a hijab”; they also hire people whose sole responsible is to admonish customers for going unveiled. These new hijab enforcers are also in the malls and luxury megastores of Tehran.


One year after the start of the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising we can say that, more than anything, we have encountered new possibilities in our bodies that were confined under a compulsory covering. There was a body in whose framework we had not existed until now. Living in this new body has been our most significant achievement. Feminist activist Sarvenaz Ahmadi, after being sentenced to six years in prison, wrote on Instagram: “It was worth it. It was worth the sense of belonging to a large, powerful community that is striving to seize its own destiny.”


Shilling, The Body and Social Theory (Sage, 2012).


Shilling, The Body and Social Theory, 6.


Shilling, The Body and Social Theory, 27.


Trans. note: A manteau is a mandatory garment for women resembling a coat or poncho. A chador is a kind of cloak or robe covering a woman from head to toe.


For example, female employees in government offices must wear long gowns, cover their hair with a specific type of headdress called a maghna’e, and sometimes even wear gloves to cover their wrists. However, the same individuals can go about their day-to-day outings, like shopping, with fewer restrictions, in relatively short coats and shawls. Also, in recent years women in the city have sometimes worn their shawls and scarves not over their hair but around their necks, in contrast to the mandatory hijab in universities and schools.


Trans. note: The implication here is that the woman does not have large enough breasts, which is seen as an important marker of a female body.


This is a verse from the poem “Aye-haye Zamini” (Earthly verses) by pioneering poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad. It is found in her 1964 collection Tavallodi Digar (Another birth).


For example Elaheh Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi .

Middle East, Iran, Protests & Demonstrations
Return to Issue #145

Translated from the Farsi by Golchehr Hamidi-Manesh. Translation edited by Soori Parsa.

Negar Hatami is a feminist activist and researcher.


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