Two Iranians in their early twenties have just been sentenced to a longer period of time in jail than a murderer. What in the world could they have done to deserve this punishment? Social networking..
On October 26th, the two Iranians, Astiyazh Haghighi and her fiancée, Amir Mohammad Ahmadi, posted a video of themselves dancing in Azadi Square, one of the main squares in Iran’s capitol, Tehran. In the video, Haghighi is dancing bareheaded, without the hijab, without the headscarf required by Iranian law
Though Haghighi and Ahmadi are only 21 and 22 years old, they are no ordinary pair. They are social media stars. Each of them has close to a million followers on Instagram and together they have more than half a million followers on YouTube.
On October 30th, they were arrested. Now they’ve been sentenced to ten and a half years in prison each. Critics point out that an Iranian man convicted last month of beheading his 17-year-old wife[i] got a sentence of only eight years.
Why the heavy sentences for Haghighi and Ahmadi?
It all began on Sept 13th when the Iranian morality police arrested 22 year old Mahsa Amini for not wearing her hijab, her headscarf, in precisely the way Iranian law demands. Three days later Amini died in police custody.
From that day until a few weeks ago, five months, the Iranian streets erupted in protest. To end the protests, the Iranian regime arrested over 18,000 protestors,[ii] killed more than 500 demonstrators in the streets, sentenced sixteen protestors to death, and hung four. That brought the protests to an end.
Now the protest is limited to isolated acts. Thousands of Iranian women are walking publically without headscarves. Iranians are shouting slogans from rooftops and balconies. And there are small scale demonstrations like Haghighi and Ahmadi’s video of dancing-in-the-street.
But putting a video on social media is more important in Iran than you might think. Internet-related businesses account for eleven million jobs in Iran and generate more than half of Iran’s economic output.
Why is the hijab, the veiling of a woman‘s hair, such a big deal? Nearly half a century ago, in 1978,[iii] protests broke out in the streets of Iran’s capital, Tehran, protests over the heavy-handed secret police activities of Iran’s hereditary ruler, the Shah of Iran. To have an impact, street movements need leaders. And there happened to be a potential Iranian leader in exile in Paris. He was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The word Ayatollah means super scholar. Specifically, an ayatollah is a super scholar of Islam’s holy books, the Quran, the Hadith, and the Sunnah.
The Ayatollah had been smuggling religious tapes into Iran for years. He had a big following. When the Shah left Iran in 1979, the secular revolutionaries thought that they had won their freedom. But they were wrong.
The Ayatollah flew in from France, grabbed control of the revolution and created a totally Islamized society, a theocracy run by scholars of Islam’s holy books, scholars like the Ayatollah. One symbol of the new Islamic Revolution’s fidelity to Islam was the requirement that women wear the veil, the head covering, the hijab.
When the protests against the death of Mahsa Amini began in September, the first thing women did was discard their scarves, show their hair, and in some cases cut their hair in public. To the religious scholars running Iran, this was equivalent to discarding the Islamic Revolution and the religious government itself. For good reason.
A 2022 poll showed that a mere 22% of Iranians want the Islamic Republic. 34% want a secular society.
Sara Slininger, Veiled Women: Hijab, Religion, and Cultural Practice,
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