Iranian women have been rebelling against restrictions since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 – with renewed hope that protests this time will end differently

Pardis Mahdavi, Provost and Executive Vice President, The University of Montana, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

As a result, the birth rate in Iran in the 1980s swelled to an average of 3.5 children per family, up 30% from the prior decade.

A decade later, the Islamists realized that the population boom would need government support. Infrastructure would have to be strengthened and jobs created. The government did a complete turnaround and replaced its policy with family planning messages broadcast on the radio and television encouraging families to have fewer children. Sex education courses and free family planning resources were required for all couples who wished to be married. By 1994 the number of women using family planning was up 30% from 1989.

When the new millennium was ushered in, fully two-thirds of the country’s population was under the age of 21. These young people were born into the Islamic Republic of Iran that Khomeini and the Islamists had created: Women were told to wear long black cloaks from head to toe, covering every inch and curve of their bodies; the most brutal people were members of the morality police, watching every move and any strands of hair that escaped covering. If young people were found holding hands, attending a party or reading a book, they were deemed immoral by the whims of a mercurial regime.

This generation had never known the supposed opulence of the monarchy. And as its members became more frustrated and more educated, the critiques of Iran’s past drilled into them by the Islamists made less sense.

Mohammad Khatami, who took over as president in August 1997, sought to harmonize Islamic rule with the needs of a changing population and a modernizing world.

Young people, who formed the majority of the population, had found their voice. They began challenging the morality police by pushing their headscarves back millimeter by millimeter, holding hands in public and organizing spontaneous street gatherings.


Between 2000 and 2007, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the cities of Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan and Mashad, following what young people referred to as Iran’s Sexual Revolution. The resisters demanded a more democratic regime focused on solving issues like unemployment and infrastructure challenges rather than on policing their bodies. During my research in Iran on sexual and social movements, I also had several run-ins with the morality police and experienced their brutality firsthand.

These young people’s revolution was fought through the language of morality using their bodies, their choices in outerwear, makeup and hairstyles. They defied the morality police by sliding their headscarves back, wearing layers of makeup and eye-catching outerwear, dancing in the streets and holding hands or kissing in public.

The government responded by cracking down and tightening its grip on the moral behavior of young people. Increased raids and public floggings were meant to send a strong message. But young people persisted in their resistance.

In 2005, when conservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, the sexual revolution came under heightened threat.


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