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4 memoirs for context on Iran’s hijab protests

From a professor teaching ‘Lolita’ in secret, to a graphic novel set in the Islamic Revolution, these memoirs contextualise life as a woman in Iran

Women wearing headscarves walk in the streets of Tehran near Tajrish Square, on July 12 2022. 
Women wearing headscarves walk in the streets of Tehran near Tajrish Square, on July 12 2022.  (AFP)

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Earlier this month, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi doubled down on enforcing the 'hijab and chastity' law. Wearing the veil was made compulsory after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which resulted in the overthrowing of Iran’s corrupt Pahlavi monarchy. However, over time, the law stopped being strictly enforced and there was more tolerance for women choosing the kind of the veil they wanted to wear. 

After Raisi’s crackdown now, the consequences of wearing the hijab improperly can range from not being allowed to ride the metro to being detained. On 12 July, which is marked as the ‘National Day of Hijab and Chastity’ in Iran, women could be seen posting videos of themselves removing their hijabs in public places.

Though Iran is now being pushed to traditionalism, the country was liberalised in 1936 to increase women’s participation in society, and also to be more palatable to the West. The veil was banned by the Pahlavis, with women being made to remove it and their houses searched if they did not comply. This return to conservatism is complex, and so is the tension between people’s differing interpretation of Islam’s views on women.

Here are some memoirs by Iranian women, which shed light on how social changes actually play out in the country, and immerse you in the context of feminism and dissent in Iran.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (2003)
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (2003)

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi (2003)

Azar Nafisi, an English literature professor in Iran is banned from teaching at a University after refusing to wear a veil. She begins teaching women in her home, discussing novels like Lolita, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice, in her subversive book club. Nafisi weaves in political commentary mirroring the themes of the novels and the reactions of her students, a mix of women of varying religiosity.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000)
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000)

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (2000)

This graphic novel is about author Marjane Satrapi’s coming of age during the Iranian Revolution. A young Marji is made to wear the veil at school and, being religious herself, is confused about her liberal parents’ anger, reflecting the complexity of the Revolution beyond secularism being good and Islam being oppressive. Persepolis explores serious themes humorously like Satrapi buying contraband Iron Maiden CDs or a young Marji bullying her friends using torture techniques she had heard that the secret police used on traitors.

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi (2006)
Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi (2006)

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, by Shirin Ebadi (2006)

Shirin Ebadi is a lawyer, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her memoir traces her experiences as one of the few female lawyers in the 1980s following the Islamic Revolution. Her reflections on her work defending dissidents and cases of child abuse along with her memories of Iran back in the 1950s when she was growing up, are intriguing.

Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni (2005)
Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni (2005)

Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni (2005)

Journalist Azadeh Moaveni moved to Tehran to work at TIME Magazine after having grown up in the Iranian diaspora in California. With her interesting insider-outsider perspective, she talks about donning a chador to interview clerics and report on the takeover of President Khatami’s Reformist government in the late 1990s. This is interspersed with stories of her life as a twenty something woman in Tehran where young people were driving liberalisation, with underground parties and gyms being opened up for women.

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