Sparked by the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini, who was taken into custody by The Islamic State of Iran’s so-called ‘Morality Police,’ women across Iran have been spearheading rising protests. Women are burning their hijabs, cutting their hair, and making flags out of them in the fifth successive day of unrest. At least seven women protestors have been reportedly killed in the last five days, including a 16-year old girl. Amin was detained for allegedly breaking hijab laws and fell into a coma from which she never revived after being beaten and brutalized for ‘indecency’ by the ‘morals’ squad. In reality, a tiny bit of hair was showing around the edge of her hijab.
When I read ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ (2003) by Azar Nafisi, I understood, in a different way, the terrorism for which the hijab stands as symbol and sign, for both the terrorized and the terroristic criminal Islamic State, itself.
I’d read ‘The Storyteller’s Daughter’ by Saira Shah, also published in 2003, and watched her 2001 documentary, ‘Beneath the Veil.’ To make it, Shah went under cover, literally — donning a burqa to document the lives of women and girls under the Taliban during their first go-round in Afghanistan after kicking out the Soviets. But these works failed to capture the relentless, grinding, day-by-day, mundane, quotidian terror involved in living as a woman under Sharia Law in an Islamic state.
Subtitled ‘A Memoir in Books,’ Nafisi’s work documents the two years during which she, exiled from her post at the University of Tehran, led a courageous group of young women in exploring banned Western classics. The exercise was purely literary and artistic, but the works they studied also held parallels within them for their own plight, struggling to exist with integrity under an unbearably oppressive Abrahamic patriarchal tyranny.
To do this, they symbolically removed their veils at the start of every class. This required enormous bravery as they could have been raided, arrested, tortured, beaten or executed for so doing. They knew this could happen at any point; they never really knew if they and their studies had been spied upon, secretly surveilled or reported to the Moral Police by suspicious male family members.
Reading the book, following the story, held an underlying tension and suspense, hovering in the background, waiting for the other shoe to drop — for the unthinkable to happen. Reading it, one knew that any one or all of these women, of whom one had become so fond, their stories having become so familiar, could be apprehended or harmed by the hostile forces that surrounded them and controlled their every breath.
In the 1970s, an Australian artist visited her friend, the renowned photographer Dona Ann McAdams, in San Francisco, where I, already close friends with Dona, also lived. I subsequently met Leslie, and the three of us embarked upon a cross-country road trip, accompanying Dona in her mission to document some of the most dangerous nuclear reactors across America (ultimately published as ‘The nuclear survival kit: they’re juggling our genes’ in 1982). Leslie was young, an adventurous and inveterate traveler, and many stories were shared. One of these really stuck with me.
When she was even younger, just out of her teens, Leslie had traveled with her sister to North Africa. In a coastal Moroccan town, they had strayed down a street that locals knew was the sole preserve of men, one that no local women would have ventured into, veiled or unveiled. Leslie and her sister were innocent of such local wisdom. They were obviously Western, bare-headed, bare-faced, and wearing jeans, all of which were proscribed in this particular backwater male preserve. At least, they couldn’t be permitted to range about so freely and publicly without penalty.
Leslie and her sister were stalked, surrounded and attacked. Leslie passed out from the shock, but her sister remained conscious and fought. So she got beat up and raped, while Leslie lay unconscious and ignored on the ground. Leslie told me that, should she ever travel in Muslim countries again, she’d make sure to always wear a full body veil.
This is exactly what female tourists are advised to do if they travel outside of the Westerners’ enclaves set up for them in Arabia, in many parts of Pakistan, any remote parts of the Middle East controlled by Islamic militias or revolutionaries, or any regions formally governed by the Islamic State. I heard this story in 1979, and knew that, like Leslie, like Saira Shah in rural Afghanistan or Pakistan, or like Azar Nafisi and her underground Western Literature students in Tehran, I wouldn’t venture into such hostile antifeminist regions unveiled. Not in a million years.
Yet here are these women, risking their lives (and many have died), burning their hijabs, rising up.