by Mojgan Ghazirad
Cool breezes of early fall flapped the olive curtains behind him. We were sitting in front of each other in an empty classroom, a desk full of books separating the two of us. I felt nervous about the first job interview of my life. I had recently graduated from high school and Seyed was interviewing me for a teaching position in my own high school. A young radical Islamist in his mid-twenties, he recruited new teachers for the school.
With his quasi-hieroglyphic handwriting, Seyed added a few more books to the long list he’d prepared and handed the paper to me. He capped his royal blue ink pen with a sharp click and settled back with crossed hands in his seat. He glared at me through his square-framed glasses, waiting to hear something in the final minutes of the interview. I browsed the list. Half of the titles on the list were in Arabic. I wondered how he expected an eighteen-year-old Persian girl to read a complex text in Arabic. I stammered a thank you for the comprehensive list, hoping that would end the uncomfortable encounter.
Seyed took a deep breath when he noticed my unwillingness to ask a question and said, “There is something else, I’d like to say before you leave.” He brushed the black beard on his protruding chin. “I’ve heard some of your friends who’d been accepted to teach are still appearing without hijab in social gatherings. Don’t you think it’s an act of hypocrisy to behave like a good Muslim in school and appear different in private meetings?”
I wasn’t sure what to answer, but I knew exactly why he was alluding to hijab in his speech: I didn’t wear any type of hijab at home or at friendly gatherings. I liked painting my nails with faint nail colors and wearing colorful scarfs out of school. Nobody wore hijab inside the house in my family and it never occurred to me I needed to cover my hair in front of my male cousins. To me, hijab was the compulsory veil we had to wear in the streets.
On my way home, I got off the metro bus three stations before my usual bus stop. Walking had become the habit of stressful days. I breathed out the anxious thoughts as I trod home through Haft Hose Park. The pines in the park, covered with pinpoint leaves, blushed among the deciduous trees. Plane trees, crouching with their bare boughs, looked homely in that picturesque beauty. I pondered the conversations we’d had during the interview. I wasn’t worried about getting the teaching position at the school. It was supposed to be a volunteer job before I started medical school. What worried me was the notion of hypocrisy in his speech. Was I not a true believer because I didn’t wear hijab?
After the interview, I decided to cover my hair in every circumstance. Seyed’s words had a huge impact on me. I trusted the man whom I believed to be an Islamic scholar. I threw away all my pink and ivory nail colors and wore black scarves everywhere, religiously. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite in my heart. I started to believe a Muslim woman should attire herself in public the same as she appears during her prayer to Allah: clothed all over her body. I felt if my hair was uncovered and visible to strange men, I was committing a sin. I didn’t wear hijab because of the tradition that ran in my family. I chose to observe hijab because of the trust I had in the words of the scholars who established my system of beliefs.
The uncoupling of hijab from my moral ethics happened years after living outside Iran. Erasing hijab from the ideology I was brought up with was not easy, like taking a central pillar out of a high-rise building. It took me many years to uproot the tenets that were sewn into my mind about hijab and to realize wearing a scarf had nothing to do with being a devout Muslim or a good human being.
Today, on international women’s day, I think about the movement started a few months ago by Iranian women who live inside Iran. The Girls of Revolution Street are the women who stand on telecom posts or benches in busy streets, take their scarves off and flag them on a stick in protest to compulsory hijab. Almost all of them have been arrested for breaking the law and appearing scarf-less in public. Aside from their bravery and innovation in protest, they demonstrate the fundamental failure of a government that has struggled to rule Iranian women for many years.
The culture of hijab was endorsed and emphasized in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, and what used to be a tradition in some families, ended up becoming propaganda for the new government. For four decades, the Islamic scholars of the Republic have enshrined hijab as the most sacred value a woman could achieve in her lifetime, making her feel guilty and sinful about uncovering her hair in public. But The Girls of Revolution Street prove how deeply a government-backed doctrine has plunged into bankruptcy.
As an Iranian woman who has wrestled with the concept of hijab for many years, I admire The Girls of Revolution Street not only for their bravery, but also for their ability to withstand the stifling pressure the Islamic Republic has put on them to impose its doctrine. They are the embodiment of hope and bravery for many Iranian women like me. They have resisted four decades of ideological hammering that wants to forge them into law-abiding, hijab-observing citizens. I envy them because they never see themselves as hypocrites. They are sincere in their protest and the protest reveals their honesty, in their desires and their beliefs. These girls have plucked hijab out of the moral values of Iranian women, showing to the world that what matters most to them is not wearing a piece of cloth on their head, but the freedom to choose.