Hijab Protests Just the Latest Sign Iran's Youth Are Ready for Change

Ongoing protests against the compulsory use of headscarves for women in public is the latest example of Iran's young population thirst for reform, an analyst has told Newsweek.

At least 29 women have been arrested in the capital Tehran in recent weeks after taking part in protests against the use of the hijab, a garment covering the head and chest worn by some Muslim women in public.

In Iran, the use of the hijab was made compulsory during the 1979 revolution. The hijab law triggered immediate protests that have returned in recent years.

The country is currently witnessing a wave of demonstrations, with women posting photos of them waving their hijabs in public places, as a sign of defiance of the law.

"The majority of Iranian population is under 30 and wasn't born when the Islamic Revolution took place," journalist and Middle East affairs analyst Naseer Giyas told Newsweek.

Iran has a young population. As per 2017 estimates, 87 percent of the total population (82 million) is aged between 0 and 54. The average age in the country is 30.

"The current rulers are conservative, while religious leaders are Orthodox, but the majority of young population seems progressive and optimistic," Giyas continued.

The issue of Iran's strict dress code was brought to light with the My Stealthy Freedom movement in 2014, which encouraged Iranian women to post pictures of themselves without wearing the hijab.

A second social media campaign launched in 2017 saw women in Iran post pictures of themselves wearing white garments or headscarves on Wednesdays under the hashtag #whitewednesdays. Both campaigns were started by Iranian journalist Masoumeh Alinejad-Ghomi.

The latest round of demonstrations gained momentum when a woman was arrested after she waved a white scarf on a stick while stasnding on a metal utility box in a street in December. Pictures and videos of her went viral on social media.

The detention of the woman, identified by some reports as 31-year-old Vida Movahedi, sparked outrage, with people taking to social media commenting on the issue under the hashtag #WhereIsShe?

The woman, who became the face of the latest anti-hijab movement, was released in January. However, both protests and arrests have continued.

Iranian police said earlier in February that 29 women had been arrested for taking part in a protest against the use of the hijab. Those arrested, who the police said were "deceived" into removing their headscarves, were accused of public order offences.

Wading into the debate, the government released a three-year-old report on Sunday (January 4) claiming that nearly half of Iranians want an end to the compulsory covering of women's heads in public.

Some believe the choice to release the report as demonstrations are ongoing could pit president Hassa Rouhani against hard-line clerics and signal the the government is ready to implement social changes.

"Mr. President wants to be popular, and his team knows that an increasing number of women do not like the Islamic code of dress," Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government, told the New York Times.

"They want to woo the women and make sure the popularity of the president does not diminish even further."

Giyas said: "Protest against the veil is a tough challenge for the leadership. Either they have to make a law that veil is a private affairs of an individual or they keep quiet and allow woman to mingle in public places without a veil.

Young people frustrated

Iran protests
An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. Iran is currently witnessing protests against the compulsory use of headscarves for women in public, weeks after youths took to the streets in December. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Young Iranians, angered by the poor economy and rising unemployment, have been calling for changes in the Islamic Republic for months.

Pictures of Vida Movahedi's act of defiance started circulating around the same time thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the country's leadership.

Rallies began in the city of Mashhad in late December and later spread to several areas of the country. The unrest, which the country's Revolutionary Guard has tried to quell, has resulted in at least 21 deaths and thousands of arrests.

People took to the streets to protest against the country's stagnant economy, unemployment, alleged corruption and rising living costs. However, demonstrations soon turned into rallies calling for the supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to step down or face death. The religious leader blamed "Iran's enemies" for the protests, the biggest unrest the country has witnessed since post-election mass demonstrations in 2009.

"Right now Iran doesn't have an influential leader who can address the issue of these people," Giyas said.

"The current leadership, including the supreme leader's voice, is not as effective as it was one decade ago. To stop protests, Iran must address the needs of its young population," he concluded.