Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'I am Majid' and the politics of the hijab: Defiance and humor as regime's attempt to humiliate student leader backfires

The Islamic regime's attempt to humiliate a jailed student leader by photographing him in women's clothes has backfired as a defiant campaign featuring Iranian men with their heads covered continues to gain strength and triggers a debate on gender equality. Opposition web sites have also reported that men will cover their heads at key moments during the upcoming mass rallies planned for the first ten days of the holy month of Moharram, December 18 to 27.

Majid Tavakoli, a prominent student leader, was arrested after giving a speech at Amir Kabir University in Tehran on Student Day, December 7, which was marked by protests across Iran. Tavakoli had taken Leader Ali Khamenei personally to task in his address to the thousands of students amassed in the campus. This blog published news of the arrest, which had been witnessed by dozens of demonstrators, minutes after it occurred.

Less than two hours later, the semi-official Fars news agency, close to the Revolutionary Guards, reported that Tavakoli had been captured in the men's lavatory of his university while shaving, putting on make-up, and preparing to wear women's clothes. This report has been removed from the news service's web site. Fars subsequently posted an article claiming that Tavakoli had been arrested in women's clothes as he attempted to escape security forces stationed around Amir Kabir University, one of the country's top engineering schools.

Late Tuesday, December 8, the Fars news service, along with other state media outlets like the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), published mug shots of the student leader wearing an Islamic headscarf and a chador, a head-to-toe cloth, in a ham-fisted attempt to ridicule Tavakoli and, by extension, dishearten the opposition movement. (NB This blog has not, and will not, publish the propaganda photos of the Islamic regime.) Tavakoli is known in university circles as the 'dignity of the student movement' (sharafeh jonbesheh daneshjouyi).

The regime first imprisoned Tavakoli in 2007. In early May of that year, the Intelligence Ministry distributed forged copies of student publications which insulted the regime and the Leader Ali Khamenei, and then blamed and arrested student leaders. Tavakoli spent 14 months in prison and was subjected to torture and mistreatment, including severe beatings, interrogations which lasted over 24 hours, threats of execution, and being lashed with electrical cables, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. He was released on August 8, 2008. He was arrested again in February 2009 for attending a ceremony commemorating the death of Mehdi Bazargan, the first post-revoilutionary prime minister of Iran. He was released on June 3, 2009, just before the ill-fated presidential election. He was allowed to continue his education, but only in the city of Bandar Abbas. He had been studying there since the beginning of the academic year and had only made the trip to Tehran to participate in the protest ceremony at his former university.

Far from cowing the opposition, the regime's latest effort to ridicule Tavakoli was met with outraged defiance.

By Wednesday, a new slogan was added to the long and creative list of protest chants: 'Ba chador, bi chador, marg bar dictator!' (With or without a chador, death to the dictator!'). The Islamic Association of Amir Kabir University (NB Student associations in universities are called Islamic associations) published a statement in support of Tavakoli and other jailed students on the same day. 'The magnificent and widespread protests of Iran's struggling students have dazed the country's decrepit oppressors to such a degree that the only response they have found is to dress Majid Tavakoli in a disguise and take photos of him,' the statement said. 'They do not understand that Majid Tavakoli has been and will remain the pride of the student movement, whether with women's clothes or men's clothes.' Photoshopped images of the regime's officials wearing headscarves began appearing on the Internet.

But then the protests took a turn. Iranian men started taking photos of themselves with hijabs and posted the pictures on blogs and community web sites like Facebook. It is unclear who initiated this movement which has become known as the 'I am Majid' or 'Men with headscarves' campaign, but it has raged through cyberspace. By Friday, December 11, there was even a Wikipedia page in Farsi devoted to the phenomenon.

The following video was posted on YouTube on Thursday, December 10, and shows a compilation of some of the photos of men with headscarves and chadors. The text read by a woman at the beginning of the footage comes from opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi's 14th statement, published on November 1. Mousavi spoke of 'humiliating clothes' in a figurative manner at the time, but his statement now appears prophetic: 'The system can arrest our children like criminals and dress them in humiliating clothes, and the people can, by the way they look upon them, turn them into heroes and take pride in them. In this confrontation, who is the winner?'

Another video shows the movement spreading around the world, as men pose with chadors in Paris:

Although the tone of the movement was initially whimsical, it touched on more profound issues related to gender equality almost immediately. On Wednesday, December 9, one call to action on Facebook said, 'The regime is trying to put pressure on the students' struggle and the green movement of the people of Iran. But this is also an effort to belittle Iranian women. In order to prove that we are all Majid Tavakolis, in order to say that women's clothes are not bad, but that it is obligatory hijabs which are wrong, and in order to make them understand that we are all together, please post photos of yourselves with a hijab.'

Pahlevans,turn of century
Iranian men, famous and unknown, responded in large numbers. By Thursday morning, Radio Farda counted at least 250 such photos on Facebook alone. Among the men posing with headscarves and implying that there is nothing wrong with being a woman was a strange volunteer : Babak Takhti. Babak is the son of Gholamreza Takhti, universally known as Jahan Pahlavan Takhti, possibly the most beloved and popular Iranian athlete of the 20th century. It is difficult to describe Gholamreza Takhti's position in the Iranian pantheon and his appeal to Iranians of all classes. Pahlevans are semi-mythical figures in the country's culture, heroes who are capable of physical prowess, often in the wrestling arena, but who also possess rare chivalrous and sportsmanlike qualities. Jahan Pahlevan is an honorific meaning a pahlevan of world stature. Takhti died at the age of 38 in 1968 and it is widely believed that the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, had a hand in his reported suicide. Babak Takhti's presence among 'men in headscarves' is a strong indication that the concept of respect for women has gone far beyond the patriarchal esteem for a 'weaker sex' which must be protected by males and has entered the realm of gender equality.

Hadi Khorsandi, a well-known satirist and poet who left Iran for Britain in the early 1980s after criticizing the regime, published a poem entitled 'For Majid Tavakoli and his headscarf' in the London edition of Ettelaat newspaper. The poem began, 'This nation of fellow sufferers is not divided into women and men. It wears no other pain on its body but longing for the homeland.'

This group of young Iranians took the campaign one step farther as the girls posed with mustaches before the clip launched into a Farsi-language rock song. 'I say to my brothers who support the Supreme Leader that I have no problem wearing a hijab,' says the first young man. 'I think that if there should be any obligation, it should apply to everyone. I feel like a pearl inside a shell now,' he continues, referring to the tired justification that the hijab protects the exalted jewel that is womanhood:

A man in Hamburg also noted the broader gender issues at stake in the 'I am Majid' campaign (translation follows footage):

'Why are you dressed this way?'
'Out of solidarity with student leader Majid Tavakoli, whom the regime forced to wear a headscarf, thinking it was humiliating him. I'm wearing my mother's headscarf. I am proud that Iranian women, with or without hijabs, have humiliated this coup d'├ętat regime. We are proud of our mothers, sisters, and daughters -- with or without headscarves -- who have belittled this oppressive regime and, through their beautiful and impressive resistance, have shown to the world that we Iranians support peace. We have attained a glorious unity. We recognize all views and, in doing so, we have reached this beautiful unity. It is the regime which is riddled with fissures and discord.'

Iranian women have been at the forefront of the opposition in Iran. The Campaign for One Million Signatures, a grassroots movement to abrogate gender-discriminatory laws, preceded the mass post-election demonstrations by years. Women's rights activists have been harassed and jailed by the regime simply for seeking signatures on petitions.(For a slide show explaining the campaign, please click here, for FAQ click here)

Footage, photos, and reports coming out of Iran since the disputed June 12 election have shown women on the front lines of every street protest and, as such, the favored target of security forces with a perverse grudge against women. As previously reported on this blog, even a pro-regime web site, Beheshteh Khouban, grudgingly remarked on this fact after the mass anti-regime rallies of November 4: 'I feel that the security forces want to give a bad image of the regime to the people. I was there today. They left the rioters alone, but as soon as they came across passersby, especially women, they would beat them wherever they could. Is this the manly thing to do? I will not forget a mother who was struck in front of her eight-year-old in that way and whose face was injured.' In just one of many reports filed from Iran for the New York Times, Roger Cohen wrote, 'From Day 1, Iran’s women stood in the vanguard. Their voices from rooftops were loudest, and their defiance in the streets boldest. [...] Images assail me: a slender woman clutching her stomach outside Tehran University after the blow; a tall woman gesticulating to the men behind her to advance on the shiny-shirted Basij militia; women shedding tears of distilled indignation; and that young woman who screamed, “We are all so angry. Will they kill us all?”'

At a ceremony marking Human Rights Day, December 10, at George Washington University, Ahmad Batebi, a student leader who spent close to nine years in the Islamic regime's prisons before escaping the country, spoke of the central role of women in Iranian society and how the imposition of the hijab has become a symbol of the regime's broader discrimination of women. 'The Islamic Republic wanted to humiliate Majid Tavakoli with a feminine identity. It had that patriarchal view. But the young generation has changed the parameters with the hijab campaign that it has started,' said Batebi. 'I wore this headscarf for two reasons. First, my mother who is a religious person chose to wear this headscarf. That is why this headscarf is sacred to me. But secondly, when my sister, who is a secular individual and does not believe in the hijab, took this headscarf off her head, she was arrested by the regime and accused of being loose. I put this on my head in support of the right of women to choose. I have no worries about being called feminine. I am proud to wear it before you. I leave judgment in the hands of public opinion. The Islamic Republic placed a headscarf on Majid Tavakoli's head to humiliate him. I will wear it now. We'll see if public opinion humiliates me or encourages me.' Footage of the event follows:

Perhaps no one expressed the complex and contradictory sentiments raised by the hijab better than Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He wrote his thoughts under the headscarved photo he posted on Thursday, December 10. 'Proud to wear my late mother's rusari (headscarf, literally something placed on the head), the very rusari that was forced on my wife in Iran, the very rusari for which my sisters are humiliated if they choose to wear it in Europe, and the very rusari that the backward banality that now rules Iran thinks will humiliate Majid Tavakoli if it is put on him,' wrote Dabashi. 'He is dearer and nobler to us today than he ever was. We are all Majid Tavakoli -- and we Iranian men are late doing this. If we [had done] this when the rusari was forced on those among our sisters who did not wish to wear it 30 years ago, we would [...] perhaps not [be] here today.'

Dabashi refers to imposition of the hijab on all Iranian women by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's government, shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. (Ironically, Reza Shah had tried to ban the hijab and chador in the early 1930s, creating equally disastrous tension within the society.) The following is footage of Iranian women demonstrating against the obligatory hijab in 1979

The 'men in headscarves' campaign and the gender debate, never far from the surface in Iranian society, are not going away soon. The greens have promised to stage protests during the first ten days of the holy month of Moharram, a period of mourning which begins on Friday, December 18. Opposition web sites have already announced that men will wear shawls on their shoulders and that they will cover their heads with the shawls at key moments during their rallies.

The ten-day period culminates in Ashura, which marks the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, a key figure in Shiism. It is customary during mourning marches to carry green banners and flags with the name 'Hossein' written on them. That green is now the color of the opposition and that Hossein also happens to be the first name of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi had already spelled headaches to come for the regime.

But gender-twisting men with headscarves marching down the street during a month when violence is particularly prohibited in Islam may be the bitterest pill yet for the Islamic Republic.


  1. Don't the women understand why the "Males so called" want them to wear headscarfs and sheets???? It's because the Males are so very insecure,and afraid that someone will look at their "property", women!! Absolutely disgusting. Women of Iran, NEVER EVER stop fighting for your Rights!
    From a American woman..........

  2. Also, women of Iran. Don't EVER think that male's are BETTER then you, SMARTER then you, or KNOW more then you....They want you to believe this. NOT TRUE AT ALL................

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