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New protest statement builds in Iran -- men in head scarves

By Eve Bower, CNN
Hamid Dabashi is a professor of Iranian studies at New York's Columbia University,
Hamid Dabashi is a professor of Iranian studies at New York's Columbia University,
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Anti-government protester Majid Tavakoli recently arrested
  • Iranian news agency then published picture of Tavakoli dressed in a chador
  • Government critics say the picture was doctored and meant to humiliate Tavakoli
  • To show solidarity, Iranian men post pictures of themselves with head scarves on Internet
RELATED TOPICS
  • Iran
  • Hamid Dabashi
  • Islam

(CNN) -- A new anti-government movement has sprung up among protesters in Iran -- and now among their supporters in other countries -- with men posting pictures of themselves on the Internet wearing women's head scarves as a political statement.

The movement began in recent days as an online backlash after the arrest of one anti-government protester, Majid Tavakoli. The day after his arrest, an Iranian news agency published a picture of Tavakoli dressed in a chador, a black head-to-toe garment worn by Iranian women.

The government claimed the man had been caught wearing the garment in an attempt to hide himself and avoid arrest, but opposition bloggers insisted that the photo published by the semi-official Fars news agency had been manipulated.

Within hours of the Fars report on the arrest of the 22-year-old protester, men both inside and outside Iran responded using a what appears to be a new tactic for the opposition -- they began posting pictures of themselves online wearing head coverings that are mandated for women in the Islamic republic.

Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at New York's Columbia University, told CNN Sunday that the pictures are an attempt at causing the Iranian government's tactics to "humiliate, intimidate or stifle this movement" to backfire. iReporters cover heads to support protests

"They (Iranian government officials) use a standard cliche to try to humiliate men, as if being a woman were something bad, and thousands of Iranians respond by posting these pictures, showing there is absolutely nothing wrong with women or veiling," said Dabashi, who is a supporter of the arrested protester, Tavakoli.

Adding to the controversy is the Fars agency's decision to juxtapose the photos of Tavakoli alongside a decades-old photo of the first president of the Islamic republic, Abolhassan Banisadr. Years ago, Iranian officials accused Banisadr of using women's clothes to try to escape arrest.

In the nearly 30-year-old image, Banisadr, who was president for one year at the beginning of Iran's post-revolutionary period, is shown wearing what appears to be a white floral head scarf. Though many question the authenticity of the picture, state media at the time used it as evidence that Banisadr attempted to escape the country in a "cowardly" way after his ouster in 1981.

The Fars report gave no explanation for publishing Banisadr's photo alongside Tavakoli's, and the two men have no other apparent links.

A blog that focuses on religion and politics in the Muslim world -- Spittoon.org -- interpreted the juxtaposition as being an attempt by the authorities "to humiliate [Tavakoli, using] an old practice by the government to prove to the public that the opposition leaders are 'less than men,' lacking courage and bravery."

One commentator on that site wrote, "It is ironic how [the] head scarf, which was traditionally seen as a symbol of women's oppression ... is now being used by men to show membership in a liberation movement."

A Facebook page created Friday night for Tavakoli exhorts supporters to "condemn the state media's behavior towards Majid Tavakoli," and "act in solidarity ... to affirm his status as a known symbol of integrity."

The page adds that the invitation to wear a head covering is "without connotations to hijab as a religious practice," and that the group's leaders are "against any kind of forced or imposed hijab."

Hijab refers to religiously sanctioned dress for men and women in Islam.

Thus the new protest also speaks to the societal aspect of Iranian women being forced to accept a dress code, according to Dabashi.

Alongside his own photo on Facebook, Dabashi describes the varied shades of meaning that this particular form of protest holds for him, referring to his rusari, the loosely tied head scarf that covers only the hair.

"Proud to wear my late mother's rusari, the very rusari that was forced on my wife in Iran, the very rusari for which my sisters are humiliated if they choose to wear it in Europe, and the very rusari that the backward banality that now rules Iran thinks will humiliate Majid Tavakoli if it is put on him -- He is dearer and nobler to us today than he ever was."

Tavakoli remains in custody of Iranian security forces, and it is not known what he thinks about becoming associated with this particular protest tactic.

He was arrested after a protest demonstration last Monday. December 7 is "Students Day" in Iran, an annual observance extolling the virtues of the Islamic Revolution that toppled the Western-backed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran. The holiday remembers the killing in 1953 of three university students by the shah's security forces.

In a speech before his arrest, Tavakoli played on the theme of the day's historical significance in light of current anti-government protests.

"Stand up against dictatorship and scream all you can against dictatorship. We don't accept a dictatorship any more," Tavakoli said, according to a video of his speech posted on YouTube.com.

"Let's go to the gates of the university and one more time let's show our solidarity and unity."

Columbia University's Dabashi said the head scarf protest is a way of showing the same solidarity against a system that came into being after the Iranian Revolution.

"We Iranian men are late doing this," Dabashi said. "If we did this when rusari was forced on those among our sisters who did not wish to wear it 30 years ago, we would have perhaps not been here today."

 
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