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Hundreds of women in Iran are defying authorities by publicly removing their hijab

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Summer in Iran often seems to be when women come under even more scrutiny than usual as police seek to ensure that conservative Islamic dress codes are followed. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been calling in to the country to report about a backlash taking place this summer with women defying authorities by publicly removing their hijab or headscarf.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Iranians say official crackdowns on women deemed to be dressing immodestly happen in most years, usually in summer. But this year, something different happened. On June 12, dubbed National Hijab and Chastity Day by the government, women fed up with the restrictive dress code began posting videos of themselves removing their hijab, uncovering their hair.

SOURI BABAI: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: One woman, identifying herself as Souri Babai from a small town in northwest Iran, criticized the restrictions placed on women, including no right of divorce and the inability to travel without a male family member. Facing her phone's camera, she then removed her hijab, saying, quote, "I say no to all these discriminations and suppression and say no to forced hijab. Hijab-bi-hijab." Her closing words, hijab-bi-hijab, which roughly translates as, no more hijab, quickly became a trending phenomenon on Farsi Twitter. Iran's justice minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje'i, railed against the videos, telling the High Judicial Council that removing the hijab is a crime under Shariah law, and violators must be dealt with. He also suggested that what he called, this campaign to spread shamelessness, was somehow the work of unnamed foreign agents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GHOLAM-HOSSEIN MOHSENI-EJE'I: (Through interpreter) Different agencies need to be alert and find those behind this plot of spreading shamelessness in our society. Intelligence work needs to be done. Our prosecutors and police need to uncover these organized waves that are certainly backed by foreign services.

KENYON: The crackdown hasn't been limited to arresting women. Cafes where hardliners say impermissible mixing of men and women takes place have also been closed. NPR called in to Iran and reached one cafe owner. Meysam asked that only his first name be used because he worries about repercussions for speaking to the media. Meysam says for now he's still open, but another cafe nearby was permanently shut down and others accused of, quote, "degenerate behavior" were seized by the government. Meysam says there are some interesting double standards. For instance, the Islamic Republic bans the consumption of alcohol, but Meysam says everyone knows it goes on, including the police.

MEYSAM: (Through interpreter) I mean, if I make this a men-only cafe, no women inside, even if you serve alcohol, it will be totally fine. Think about it. If I got caught serving alcohol here, I could bribe the officer and not get in trouble. But if a woman's scarf falls here, I won't be able to get out of legal trouble so easily. Their most important issues are women's hijab and women's smoking.

KENYON: Many of the women defying the ban are careful to say if a woman wants to cover her hair, that's her business. What they object to is the forced hijab. Critics say this is happening against the backdrop of what they call a general campaign against freedoms. In recent weeks, Iranian media reported three prominent Iranian filmmakers had been arrested. There was a wave of property seizures in the city of Shiraz as cafe owners were accused of permitting, quote, "degenerate behavior." And in the city of Qom, several teenagers were arrested for attending a party where some girls weren't wearing a hijab.

Mahtab, a university student in Tehran, asked that her family name not be used because she's worried about retribution for speaking with a reporter about a sensitive subject. She and a friend showed their support for the No More Hijab campaign by going for a walk in their neighborhood with their hair uncovered. She says they were screamed at and chased by two men dressed in the uniform of the Basij, a militia established in 1980. In a phone conversation with NPR, Mahtab says they ran away and were laughing about their escape. But there was nothing funny about it.

MAHTAB: (Through interpreter) Under the boiling sun of summer in the middle of the street, we had to argue with middle-aged men and hear the dirtiest swear words. One should really cry about this, not laugh.

KENYON: For now, there appears to be no quick end in sight for the crackdown. Authorities say the morality patrols will continue. Meanwhile, more women and men are speaking out in support of the women who dared to take off their hijabs. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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