It’s the Iranian regime’s obsession. Surveillance cameras dot the landscape of Tehran and other Iranian cities in search of supposed deviants: women who fail to wear the mandatory hijab, or headscarf. Thousands of women are defying the government’s injunction, proudly risking imprisonment or worse by walking the streets with their hair exposed. The danger is real. During nationwide protests over the past nine months, Iranian security forces have deliberately shot women in the face, breasts, and genitals, according to Iranian doctors. In jail, women often face sexual harassment and even rape.

One incarcerated woman recalled that security officers gagged her mouth with a hijab before beating her. The incident amounts to a fitting metaphor for the regime’s cynicism and hypocrisy when it comes to women’s rights. Ultimately, Tehran isn’t obsessed with female hair per se, and it doesn’t actually regard the hijab as sacred. Rather, Iran fears the Western values of freedom and pluralism that uncovered hair ostensibly represents.

The ongoing protests in Iran began last September as a feminist mutiny against a misogynistic theocracy after Iran’s morality police killed 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. The unrest then evolved into a full-fledged challenge to the government’s right to rule, complete with crowds calling for regime change and chanting, “women, life, freedom.”

Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow and senior editor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @TzviKahnFDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.   

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