8 March 1979, Tehran. Over a hundred thousand Iranian women were on the streets to protest Khomeini’s hijab law. This was the beginning of six days of protests.
A lone figure in the crowd that day was going to eternalise the march with her camera; her name was Hengameh Golestan*.
Golestan started taking photos in 1972. In those days, there were only a few female photographers in Iran. Photography was not only not seen as a real profession but also a ‘strange’ thing for women to do.
“When I would say I was a ‘photographer’, my friends and family would laugh. ‘Photography is a hobby,’ they’d say. As far as they were concerned, photographers worked at weddings and touristic spots,” says Golestan in one of her interviews.
The day after the hijab law was brought in, decreeing that women in Iran would have to wear scarves to leave the house, many people in Tehran went on strike and took to the streets. Demonstrations were huge, with women and men from all professions participating.
“We were fighting for freedom: political and religious, but also individual,” says Hengameh Golestan.
“I wanted to join in all the protests during the revolution, but I knew I had to go as a photographer. My first thought was: ‘It’s my responsibility to document this. I’m rather small, so I was ducking in and out of the crowd, constantly taking photos. I took about 20 rolls of film. When the day was over, I ran home to develop them in my darkroom. I knew I had witnessed something historic. I was so proud of all the women. I wanted to show the best of us.” she adds.
The protests were the last days women were able to walk on the streets without wearing a hijab. In April 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran was established and immediately after the regime change, the legal age of marriage was lowered to thirteen for girls and fifteen for boys.
However, it is still important to comprehend what happened during the hijab protests. About 30 years after the protests, two veteran researchers Nasser Mohajer and Mahnaz Matin published ‘The Post-Revolutionary Women’s Uprising of March 1979′. The two-volume work stands at approximately one thousand pages and together comprises a ground-breaking piece of research on a now iconic series of protests.
In an interview Mahnaz Matin says, “this was the first protest movement to emerge following the revolution from within the revolution itself and against the actions of the leadership. Such an event was unprecedented and it was for this reason that it attracted the attention of feminists around the world.”
Mohajer adds, “the uprising of women in March 1979 was the first social movement to pursue the imperative of freedom, which was arguably the most important of those who opposed the Shah’s dictatorship. It is the first movement which says “now, instead of despotism, freedom must be established!”
“Most of the people didn’t participate in the demonstrations because they didn’t believe for a second that the hijab would become compulsory in Iran” the writers state in the book.
The writers’ research also reveals little support for the women from liberals and secularists including socialists and social democrats. If the demonstrations were backed the revolution could have evolved differently they argue.
Now, we only have those brilliant photographs, taken by Golestan, of the smiling faces of strong women standing in Tehran’s streets.
Golestan says, “this turned out to be the last day women walked the streets of Tehran uncovered. It was our first disappointment with the new post-revolution rulers of Iran. We didn’t get the effect we had wanted. But when I look at this photo, I don’t just see the hijab looming over it. I see the women, the solidarity, the joy – and the strength we felt.”
Golestan : "Some nurses stopped some men in a car and said: We want equality – so put some scarves on too!" March 1979, Tehran, Hengameh Golestan
Golestan’s most impressive words reveal the disappointment for Iran’s future:
“I get a strange response from young Iranians, the generations who have never seen women without hijabs in the streets. Their’s is a very different world. Some don’t even know these demonstrations happened.”
*Hengameh Golestan, born in 1952 in Tehran, is a pioneer among Iranian women photographers. She has been documenting life in Iran for twenty-eight years. She has photographed vast numbers of women and children, instances of family life, traditional weddings and everyday life in Iran. During the revolution, she captured moments of rebellion on the part of women.
The piece was written by Duygu Yildiz for Komnews.