Why Iranian men wear headscarves to protest

2009/12/15

Published in German daily newspaper “Die Welt” on December 15, 2009
Source (German): http://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article5537869/Warum-iranische-Maenner-im-Schleier-protestieren.html

Iran’s opposition has a new hero: Majid Tavakoli, who was arrested one week ago. Iran’s state-run media broadcasted pictures showing the 22 year old in a veil, apparently he had been forced to wear it. Regime critics utilized the twofold message of the picture to start a very special campaign in support of Tavakoli.

Iranian opposition supporters have founded the online campaign 'Men in Hejab' in support of leading student activist Majid Tavakoli. (Photo: Facebook)

A young man with a full beard and a serious look, whose head is covered by a black chador. An elderly gentleman with rimless spectacles wears a headscarf with a floral pattern. A student of heavy build poses wrapped up in a tablecloth. Click by click, this goes on and on, there are hundreds of pictures like that. With every day, the number of photos showing Iranian men in headscarves posted on social networking platforms such as Facebook is growing.

Iranian opposition supporters have started the online campaign “Men in headscarves” in support for the leading student activist Majid Tavakoli. The 22 year old was arrested during a student protest on Monday last week. The state-owned media later released photos of Tavakoli in a chador and a light blue headscarf. According to state news agency Fars News, the activist had tried to escape from the security forces in female clothes.

The recent student protests were staged in continuation of a series of demonstrations that broke out after the re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June had allegedly been rigged. During the protest, Tavakoli gave a speech on the campus of Tehran’s Amir Kabir university.

A video clip on YouTube shows wiggly pictures of him standing on a pedestal in front of the protesting crowd. “Today is the day for this nation to demand freedom and fight tyranny”, he exclaims, visibly moved. “Make a stand against dictatorship, and chant against dictatorship as loudly as you can.”

According to the organization “Human Rights Activists in Iran”, the government’s security forces were already waiting for him when he left the premises of the university. “The agents beat him and injured Majid during the arrest. Passers-by were shocked at the extent of violence and brutality”, it says on the group’s website.

In the picture, which was released after his arrest, Tavakoli looks as if he slumped under the veil. His gaze is lowered in shame. Although the picture looks authentic, some human rights activists have expressed doubts about its genuineness. Others suspect that Tavakoli was forced to wear the chador.

Apparently, the authorities intended to publicly humiliate and discredit the regime critic. However, the attempt has backfired: The same afternoon, a campaign in his support started spreading via social networks, blogs, and photo communities. Meanwhile, hundreds of faces of Iranian men in headscarves are displayed on the internet. “We are all Majid”, it says in many pictures. An Iranian man writes on twitter: “Real men wear the headscarf without fear and shame.”

In addition, by displaying pictures of a man forced to wear a veil, the regime has unwittingly drawn attention to the fact that women living in the theocratic state are subject to this very constraint every day. The opposition utilizes this twofold message of the photo, demanding the release of Tavakoli and at the same time protesting against the dress code for women.

“Iran will not be free as long as Iranian women are not free. Iranian men, let’s wear headscarves in solidarity with Majid AND the women of Iran”, it reads in an entry of a young Tehran citizen on Facebook. Many bloggers criticize that the regime, by assuming that wearing women’s clothes for men equals humiliation, has unveiled its attitude of contempt for women.

A university professor writes on the internet: “Proud to wear my late mother’s rusari, the very rusari that was forced on my wife, and the very rusari that the backward banality that now rules Iran thinks will humiliate Majid Tavakoli. We are all Majid Tavakoli – and we Iranian men are late doing this. If we did this when the rusari was forced on our sisters 30 years ago, we would perhaps not have been here today.”

And thus, the opposition in Iran has once again proven wit and creativity in using the internet as a form of expression for their protest, managing to beat the regime at its own game. What was designed to be the public disgrace of a single person, has triggered a wave of solidarity and identification.

Instead of being exposed to ridicule, Tavakoli has become the second young face of the protest movement, next to the murdered protester Neda Agha-Soltan. The 22 year old definitely knew the risk he was taking: Twice already he was held in the notorious Evin prison, where he was tortured, according to Iranian human rights activists.

„I see the tears in my mother’s eyes, and the anxious gaze of my father. In all the difficulties we are facing, only the desire for freedom can maintain my steadfastness”, he wrote in his last entry on his Facebook page. “So I will once more face all dangers, will stand side by side with my friends with whom I will have the honor to be crying out against tyranny. For freedom.”

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