IRAN: Apparent attempt at humiliating activist sparks widespread hijab backlash


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Some are dressed in the traditional black head-to-toe chador. Others peep at the camera lens from under sheets, Pashmina scarves or other improvised Islamic veils in which they’ve wrapped themselves. There are hundreds of them, and they are all men.

Meet Iran’s new anti-government campaigners -- men in headscarves, or hijab.


The movement sprang to life last week with the arrest of leading Iranian student activist Majid Tavakoli, a harsh critic of the Iranian government, after he called for more democracy and urged his fellow students to reject ‘tyranny’ in a fiery speech at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University on Iran’s National Students Day.

The day after Tavakoli’s arrest, Iran’s semi-official news agency Fars published a picture of the activist dressed in chador and a blue headscarf in an apparent attempt to humiliate him. It had juxtaposed the image of Tavakoli with an old picture -- also thought to be manipulated, pre-Photoshop -- of former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr, whom Iranian officials accused of escaping the country in female disguise in 1981.

Iranian authorities claimed Tavakoli had dressed up as a woman to escape arrest, but the allegation did not convince opposition activists and bloggers.They say the photo posted on Fars and published in government newspapers of a chador-clad Tavakoli had been doctored or that he’d been forced to don the clothing.

The picture of Tavakoli may have backfired for authorities as it seems to have sparked fresh admiration for the activist. Online, scores of men from both inside Iran and outside the country began posting images and videos of themselves in various styles of headscarves in an apparent gesture of solidarity with the detained activist. Many of them appear bearded and smiling. Some wear green headscarves in reference to Iran’s opposition movement.

The movement quickly swept social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Administrators of the Facebook group Free Majid Tavakoli say they received more than 400 pictures of men in hijabs less than 48 hours after they made the call.

The phenomenon also has been spotted in the streets of cities such as Paris and New York. In the French capital, a group of Iranian men posing in chadors and headscarves staged a photo shoot near the Eiffel Tower.

One of the chador-clad men, Bahman Amini, an Iranian publisher and bookseller based in Paris, told The Times that he wore the veil with “great pride” in support of Tavakoli. He also said he did it to show solidarity with Iranian women, whom he said suffer repression at the hands of Iranian authorities.

“In the mind of the Iranian authorities, women are inferior to men,’ he said. ‘The ‘men in headscarves’ campaign is also a refusal by Iranians to this patriarchal and obsolete thought. It is a strong sign of solidarity with the struggle of Iranian women to enjoy full equality with men.”

Amini also praised Iranian opposition activists for taking advantage of each opportunity they get to deliver their message.

Anti-government activists so far have managed to hijack several recent state-sponsored national holidays to authorities’ chagrin. They stole the show on Iran’s annual Quds Day in September and staged loud protests at universities across Iran on National Student Day earlier this month.

‘This campaign shows the intelligence of the Iranian movement to use each opportunity they get to deal a blow to the tottering regime,’ said Amini. ‘Through this campaign, Iranians are showing the world the gap between the people and the Islamic Republic.’

As for Tavakoli, he remains in custody. But it is not the first time the student activist has been detained as a result of his activism. He’s been arrested twice and was jailed for 15 months in 2007 on charges that he insulted Islam in a student newsletter.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photos, from top: A group of men in chadors stage a photo shoot near the Eiffel Tower in Paris in solidarity with arrested student activist Majid Tavakoli. Bahman Amini says he wears the veil ‘with pride.’ Credit: Maryam.A / Second image from the top: Iran’s Fars news agency published a picture of Tavakoli wearing a chador, an image activists claim was manipulated, alongside one of former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr, also said to have been manipulated.

Video: Footage on YouTube shows a compilation of pictures of men in hijab posted in support of Tavakoli. Credit:YouTube