News out of Iran is scant since the defenders of the Islamic Republic blocked all social media, but that one woman whom the world saw take off her hijab and stand silently and defiantly has become the symbol of the latest freedom uprising there.
This is fitting, because all of the convulsed history of modern Iran began with the shah’s attempts to grant rights to women. As I detail in my book The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Iran, on October 8, 1962, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi — the Western-oriented shah of Iran, whose father, Reza Shah, had admired Kemal Ataturk and set Iran on a secular path — granted women the right to vote in elections for local councils.
In response, a little-known ayatollah named Ruhollah Khomeini and his colleagues instructed Shi’ite clergy all over the country to denounce the government. Several weeks later, the shah relented: his prime minister, Assadollah Alam, announced that the Majlis (Parliament) would decide the question of women’s suffrage. But then in January 1963, the shah announced a series of reforms he called the White Revolution, including distributing land to the poor and allowing women not only to vote but also to run for office.
Khomeini declared: “What is happening is a calculated plot against Iranian independence and the Islamic nation, and it is threatening the foundation of Islam.” He and other Shi’ite clergy called for demonstrations. The demonstrations so unnerved the shah that on January 24, 1963, during a presentation on the glories of land reform, he gave an impromptu speech attacking the ayatollahs and their allies: “[A] stupid and reactionary bunch whose brains have not moved … stupid men who don’t understand and are ill-intentioned … they don’t want to see this country develop.”
The “stupid and reactionary bunch” didn’t give up, and over the years, tensions only increased. The shah exiled Khomeini, but that didn’t calm the situation. In exile in Iraq in 1970, Khomeini articulated a view called velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist). Islam, Khomeini argued, had not just given mankind a set of laws, but “a particular form of government together with executive and administrative institutions.”
He argued that Muhammad “headed the executive and administrative institutions of Muslim society. In addition to conveying the revelation and expounding and interpreting the articles of faith and the ordinances and institutions of Islam, he undertook the implementation of law and the establishment of the ordinances of Islam, thereby bringing into being the Islamic state.”
So, following the example of Muhammad, modern-day Shi’ite clerics must rule Iran and make it an Islamic state. That is, of course, what happened.
The unrest in Iran grew, and repressive measures from the shah only made matters worse. Finally, on January 16, 1979, after riots and numerous calls for him to go, a tearful shah and his family left Iran. On February 1, Khomeini returned to Iran after fourteen years of exile. He announced the formation of a new government, declaring: “This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the shari‘a. Opposing this government means opposing the shari‘a of Islam and revolting against the shari‘a, and revolt against the government of the shari‘a has its punishment in our law … it is a heavy punishment in Islamic jurisprudence. Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.”
Khomeini moved swiftly to impose sharia. In March 1979, the new government issued a decree mandating that women must wear the hijab whenever they ventured outside, on pain of arrest. On March 8, 100,000 women, sans hijab, took to the streets of Iran to protest against this — to no avail, of course. The hijab became the most visible symbol of the totalitarian sharia backwater that the Islamic Republic of Iran became.
Today, as the Iranian people courageously stand for freedom, it is most fitting that the removal of the hijab has become the symbol of this movement.
Iran’s modern miseries began with an attempt to grant rights to women. Those miseries could end now with women reasserting those rights. The protesters have been chanting: “We don’t want an Islamic Republic!” “Clerics shame on you, let go of our country!” Some have even chanted: “Reza Shah, bless your soul!”
We can only hope that the protesters will succeed in overthrowing or at least drastically weakening the Islamic Republic, such that the rights of women, and of all people, can flower. Iranian women deserve better than the Islamic Republic. The Iranian people deserve better than the Islamic Republic. The protesters deserve the wholehearted support of all free people.