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by Kirsteen Paterson
28 October 2022
Iran Protests: A Matter of Rights

After competing without a hijab, Elnaz Rekabi has become one of the faces of resistance for Iranian protesters

Iran Protests: A Matter of Rights

Elnaz Rekabi arrived home in Iran to a hero’s welcome. Amongst the crowds thronging the car the elite athlete travelled in were women with uncovered heads.

In a country where the personal is undeniably political – at least for women – Rekabi is the latest figurehead in a nationwide battle against mandatory hijab for women. The world-class climber has apologised for appearing at the Asian Championships in South Korea with nothing to hide her dark ponytail. Her headscarf had fallen off “inadvertently”, she said in a statement many believe was made under duress. And against a backdrop of nationwide anger over the deaths of two teenage girls and a young woman related to pushback against strict dress codes, Rekabi’s actions have spoken louder than her words.

Strong and limber, Rekabi became the first Iranian woman to medal at the sport climbing world championships last year, and narrowly missed out on another podium position this month, finishing fourth in Seoul. It’s an achievement worthy of national congratulations, but Rekabi’s bare head means she is instead being celebrated as an icon of a protest movement which champions “woman, life, freedom”. The chants at Imam Khomeini Airport were deafening: “Elnaz is a heroine.”

Iran is reeling from the deaths of women allegedly killed by authorities over their failure to cover their heads. Mahsa Amini, 22, died in hospital after arrest for the “improper” wearing of hijab, and though underlying health problems were given as an official cause of death, the public aren’t buying it – not with images of her bloodied face made public. Protests that started outside the hospital where she died took root across the country within a week as women burned their hijabs and hacked off their hair. Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh were amongst the protestors. Both families say their 16-year-old daughters were murdered, revealing details of their injuries even as officials attribute their deaths to suicide.

And now there’s Rekabi. All four are now emblems of the fight for women’s rights – for human rights. In footage shared online, crowds of men and women chant “bisharaf” (dishonourable) at the security forces – a scathing insult in a society where honour is valued at a premium. “Death to the dictator,” crowds have cried, and “justice, liberty, no mandatory hijab”. 

A half-Iranian friend tells me that, growing up in Scotland, she’d be told by her parents to “think yourself lucky; if we were still in Iran you’d be under a chador”. Estimates put the size of the Scotland’s Iranian population at 3,000-6,000, and last year Iranians were the single biggest group seeking asylum in the UK, in keeping with a pattern established in 2016. Claims of political persecution are common amongst this group.

What happens in Iran affects lives here too, and the Iranian diaspora is watching this fight back against the repression of basic freedoms. Will the protests develop into actual change? There is a mountain to climb. 

A message posted on Rekabi’s social media account apologised for “all the concerns I have caused”. “My hijab unintentionally became problematic,” it went on. The problems caused to Iranian women over dress are entirely intentional, and not of their own making. There’s no covering that up.

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