In Tehran, forgoing a headscarf is a quiet, daring protest Mahsa Amini's death after an alleged violation of Iran's strict dress code sparked months of protests. Now, Tehran's streets are crowded with women with uncovered hair: an act of bravery and dissent.

In Tehran, forgoing a headscarf is a quiet, daring protest

In Tehran, forgoing a headscarf is a quiet, daring protest

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A women in Tajrish Square in Tehran, Iran, in Feb. 2023. Marjan Yazdi for NPR hide caption

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Marjan Yazdi for NPR

A women in Tajrish Square in Tehran, Iran, in Feb. 2023.

Marjan Yazdi for NPR

The Iranian government has come down brutally on widespread protests in the months after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the so-called morality police. She had been detained after being accused of wearing improper attire, or not covering her hair.

Despite the crackdown – and the risk of repercussions – women in Iran are quietly protesting the regime by going about their days with their hair uncovered.

NPR talked to women on the streets of Tehran, both supporters and opponents of the regime, to get a sense of how the law affects their lives.

Listen to the full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.


One of my colleagues on this program has some advice he gives. When you're heading out into the world to report, notice what you notice, he says. The thing that jumps out at you - that is worth putting in your story. Well, I heard those words spinning in my head as I reported in Tehran these last few days.

The one thing that is really striking me as we move around the city is you see women on the streets with their hair not covered. Still, the majority of women, I would say, are wearing hijab or wearing a scarf, but a lot aren't - younger and older - and I'm curious about the reasons why. We had traveled to Iran to talk to as many people as we could, ask what's on their minds five months after antigovernment protests broke out, protests that have shaken this country and on which the government has brutally cracked down.

Those protests, you'll recall, were ignited last September after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested, reportedly for not wearing her headscarf correctly. She died in police custody. And after that, many Iranian women have said, enough. Here on Tajrish Square, a big traffic circle in posh north Tehran, these women - they are everywhere.

You're not wearing hijab. Is that new?


KELLY: Did you wear one before the protests?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, before...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...I use it. But right now, no.

KELLY: When did you take it off? Do you remember?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Maybe three or four months ago, after death of Mahsa Amini.

KELLY: After the death of Mahsa Amini. This is a mother and daughter, ages 63 and 41, who we flagged down as they strolled from Tajrish Square up the block towards a shopping mall. We agreed not to use their names - same for many people we interviewed in Iran who are critical of the government - in order to protect them from repercussions. The mom told us she took off her headscarf in solidarity with the mothers of protesters who have been killed standing up to the regime.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) The only thing that I can actually do at this age and what I can do now is to not have a scarf. To have the scarf or to not have the scarf, for me, is not very important. I'm not young to show off my hair, but I'm not wearing it to show that my views are against the government's views.

KELLY: What has the reaction been from your friends, from the rest of your family?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) I have a respect for hijab because my sister wears the hijab. My mother wears it. My friends - at the beginning, they were a bit worried, and they would tell me to wear the hijab. But I told them that, you - if you don't believe in the hijab, you have to show your opinion. An old lady came and told me, well done - you are not wearing the hijab. I want to not wear the hijab myself, but my hair isn't dyed. And then I told her, my hair isn't dyed as well. Just take the hijab off.

KELLY: The hijab is a religious and traditional practice. Many Muslim women around the world choose to observe it. Many women in Iran still choose to observe it. Then there's the fact that here in Iran, it's something of a symbol of the 1979 revolution. It is also the law. The women flouting it as they breeze past us on the sidewalk - they're practicing civil disobedience. Some told us this is a small individual act of defiance against Iran's government and what they believe is its corruption, oppression and inequality.

Twenty-four-year-old Niloufar - she agreed we could use her first name - she was on her way to meet friends at the mall, hair uncovered. Her take is less about burning the house down, more live and let live.

When did you stop wearing hijab?

NILOUFAR: (Through interpreter) I never actually observed the hijab even before, because they have to get used to the fact that we have - we women have our own freedoms. Just the way that I respect a woman who wears a full hijab and I don't allow myself to tell her, why aren't you taking it off, I want that person to respect me and the choices that I made.

KELLY: Have you had anyone stop you, anyone question you, anyone say, you must observe hijab - anyone trying to enforce the law?

NILOUFAR: (Through interpreter) After the protest till now, no.

KELLY: I ask because women in Iran are living in an uncertain space. Their leaders do not appear to be enforcing the law, but they haven't changed it either. Here's my attempt to pin down Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in an interview at his office last week.


KELLY: Are women in Iran still required to cover their hair?

HOSSEIN AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Any given country has its own rules and principles. And the hijab in Saudi Arabia, for example, is very special.

KELLY: Of course. But here in Iran, are women still required to wear a headscarf?

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) There are regulations in any country around the world. And of course, if there are regulations in Iran, it's within the legal framework.

KELLY: But I'm still not clear on what the answer to the question is, because it remains the law. However, we see women all over Tehran walking around with their hair uncovered.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Not many women are without headscarves, or with their headscarves removed. What they do is act as per their Islamic Iranian cultural heritage. They enjoy extraordinary freedoms, women. In fact, we are one of the strongest democracies in the region.

KELLY: In past, Iran's government has used a variety of methods to enforce the hijab, from fines to arrests to texting women spotted driving without a headscarf, identifying them by their car license plate, and ordering them to sign a statement that it won't happen again. But people we spoke to say the so-called morality police, the ones that detained Mahsa Amini - they don't seem to be operating right now.

FOAD IZADI: It's a new thing. You have as much hijab enforcement in Tehran as you have in New York.

KELLY: That's Foad Izadi, a professor at Tehran University, whose conservative views tend to track closely with the government's. He told us there's a debate underway among Iran's leaders.

IZADI: The government realized that the way they were enforcing the laws was not effective, and it resulted in a lot of difficulties for the country. You may never go back to the situation we had here five months ago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: A few days after my chat with Professor Izadi, many thousands of Iranians converged on Tehran's Azadi Square. The occasion was Revolution Day, marking the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Every woman I saw at the rally had her hair covered. But in Iran, whether a woman covers her hair may or may not tell you where she stands politically. Some told us they support the government and also think it's dead wrong on hijab policy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Chanting in non-English language).

KELLY: Here's Maryam marching in a crowd of people carrying death-to-America signs, her hair swept under a loose cobalt-blue scarf.

MARYAM: (Through interpreter) No, I don't support the enforcement of hijab, but that doesn't mean that we don't support the Islamic Republic. People who don't have the hijab or they're not wearing it as strictly should also be allowed.

KELLY: Maryam is 44 - same age as the revolution. She told us she wants reforms, but also stability. Among the many questions dividing Iranians today, whether their government is prepared to deliver either.


KELLY: Tomorrow, an on-the-ground look at the state of Iran's economy as its currency hits a record low against the dollar.


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