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Source: BBC

Feb 28, 2024

Iranian women 'ready to pay the price' for defying hijab rules

By Caroline Hawley Diplomatic correspondent

Azad, Donya and Bahareh don't know each other.

But the three women - whose names we've changed for their own safety - share a fierce determination to resist Iran's theocratic government, and the dress codes it has imposed on women and girls for 45 years.

So, every day, they head out of their homes in the capital Tehran - without covering their hair - despite the potential risks.

"It's very scary," 20-year-old music student Donya tells me over an encrypted app. "Because they can arrest you any minute and fine you. Or torture you with lashes. The usual penalty if you're arrested is 74 lashes."

Last month, a 33-year old Kurdish-Iranian activist, Roya Heshmati, made public that she'd been given 74 lashes after posting a photograph of herself unveiled.

But Donya, Azad and Bahareh say there is, for them, no going back.

"It is symbolic," says Donya. "Because it is the regime's key to suppressing women in Iran. If this is the only way I can protest and take a step for my freedom, I'll do it."

Azad was left traumatised by her time in prison, saying: "The memory of jail is with me every moment."

The three women will also protest later this week by not turning out to vote in the country's first parliamentary elections since authorities brutally repressed the women-led uprising that followed the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022.

She had been detained by the morality police for allegedly not wearing her headscarf properly. Refusing to wear the hijab in public can lead to imprisonment and torture - yet many women do it anyway.

"It's true that there's no longer a strong presence of people on the streets," 34-year-old HR manager Azad tells me.

"But in our hearts, the regime has been completely destroyed, and people don't accept anything it does. So their way of showing their disapproval will be not to vote."

'Solitary confinement was the worst you can imagine'

Azad was arrested in October 2022 and imprisoned for a month.

She was re-arrested in July last year, for social media posts criticising the government, and spent 120 days in jail - 21 of them in solitary confinement.

"Solitary confinement was the worst place you can imagine," she says. "The cell door was locked all the time. The cell was 1m (3.3ft) by 1.5m (4.9ft). There was no outside light, but artificial lights were on day and night. We were blindfolded when we went to the toilet."

Azad was so disturbed by the ordeal that she hit her head against the cell wall, and is still traumatised.

"Sometimes now I start crying without any reason," she says. "Sometimes I don't want to open my eyes because I think I'm still there. The memory of the jail is with me every moment."

She described interrogations that lasted from 08:00 until night-time.

Refusing to wear the hijab in public can lead to imprisonment, yet many women are prepared to take the risk

"It is called 'white torture' and it is worse than a thousand beatings.

They would threaten and humiliate me. But I would mock them."

And despite all that she's already endured, Azad's still willing to risk jail again by going out without the hijab.

"After we lost Mahsa Amini, I promised myself that I will not wear the hijab, or ever buy another one for myself or anyone else," she says. "Every change has a price. And we're ready to pay it."

Many women in Iran now go out without a headscarf, although some have one around their necks in case they're stopped by the morality police.

But I've been told that around one in five are not wearing one at all - in a daily act of bravery, defiance and principle.

"I will never give up," Azad messages me - followed by a heart emoji and a victory sign.

'I'm not allowed to go to work without the hijab'

But another woman I speak to in Tehran describes herself now as "worn out" by the struggle against the regime.

Bahareh, a 39-year old reporter and film critic, has taken a massive salary cut to work from home, rather than going into her office - where she would be forced to wear the veil.

"I'm tired and disappointed," she tells me. "I'm not allowed to go to work without the hijab and I'm not willing to wear it."

She now has to rely on her husband's salary.

Recently, while out driving without a headscarf, she was stopped by the police and had her car confiscated.

She was also arrested late last year, after posting pictures of herself without the hijab on her Instagram account and encouraging others to do the same. A Revolutionary Court gave her a six-month suspended sentence and a fine.

"I was insulted and threatened, told I was wrong and accused of inciting people to revolution and nakedness."

Bahareh was arrested last year after posting pictures of herself without the hijab on her Instagram account

I ask Bahareh why she thinks she wasn't actually jailed.

"Because the prisons are full of people and they prefer just to scare people like me," she replies.

"I still go out, but it's difficult because restaurants and cafes and bookstores can be closed down for letting me in without the hijab," she says. "It makes me feel very bitter."

We agree to delete our conversation as soon as we finish it, such is her fear of being caught talking to me. "Then I will block you," she messages. "I have no choice. If I am arrested no-one can help me and I will be accused of spying and sentenced to death."

Terror and courage exist side-by-side for many Iranian women willing to defy the regime. Along with anger and hope.

'I panicked and my dad got scared as well'

Donya describes a recent theatre trip with her father to downtown Tehran.

She was wearing a hat for warmth, and took it off in the metro, when she was yelled at by a group of men and women in black chadors - the full-body cloaks worn by female morality police - to put on her headscarf.

"I didn't have one. Only my hat. And a stubborn urge in me refused to put it on," she says. "It was so scary. I kept walking, ignoring them. And there were so many of them, they'd occupied most of the station."

It was only when she heard one of them say to the other, "Please take this girl to the van," that she reconsidered.

"My blood ran cold. I panicked and my dad got scared as well. So I put on my hat!"

The only other time Donya covers her head is to enter her university, because she wouldn't be allowed in without it. However, she says she - and others - then take it off in the classrooms.

"My friends and I wish we could wear cool clothes with gorgeous hairstyles at university - like in other countries.

"People were asleep before Mahsa's death - metaphorically - but now they're more aware," she adds.

"The protests are the reason why so many women refuse to wear a headscarf on the streets. But they're also tired of the pressure and all the news of executions. It's a difficult and exhausting path."

But people still write graffiti on public walls, she says, and boycott state television.

"I see people fighting for change every day," she says. "I believe in my generation, Gen Z. We can't stand oppression. People find every chance they can to dance and cheer or sing in the streets, because dancing is illegal."

Azad, too, is buoyed by the solidarity of strangers, and a new sense of unity against the regime.

She says even hijab-wearing women encourage her for refusing to cover her hair. And she's convinced that, after 45 years in power, the days of the Islamic Republic are numbered.

"The revolution will happen," she says. "But nobody knows exactly when."

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