Khamenei Has Won the Hijab War

Mahsa Amini’s portrait is displayed during protests commemorating the one-year anniversary of her death.
ALI KHALIGH/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images

Khamenei Has Won the Hijab War

Iranian human rights activists win prestigious awards—but the government has won the war against them.

Two of the most prestigious annual awards in human rights were just granted, and they both relate to Iran. The Norwegian Nobel Committee chose Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian women’s rights activist incarcerated in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, for their award, announced October 6. The European Parliament chose the late Mahsa Amini and the Woman, Life, Freedom movement for its Sakharov Prize, announced October 19.

Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old Iranian woman arrested by Iran’s “morality police” on Sept. 13, 2022. Her charges were wearing her hijab (headscarf) improperly. She died in a hospital on September 16 from injuries, likely caused by police abuse.

Her death catalyzed a firestorm of unrest, spearheaded by women’s rights activists, and the birth of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement.

The protests have died down since last year, but their effects on Iranian society are still apparent. Many Iranian women brazenly walk in public without a head covering, unconcerned with being identified through video footage.

It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets since last September in protest. Police have detained over 20,000 of the protesters and injured thousands more, including blinding people by firing rubber bullets into their eyes. More than 500 have been killed. The crackdown caused Reporters Without Borders to rank Iran as the third-most dangerous country for journalists.

This isn’t the first mass protest against the Islamic Republic of Iran. It wasn’t even the biggest in terms of human casualties. (Over 1,500 people were killed in only two weeks in anti-government protests in 2019.)

But the symbol of the revolution, the hijab, makes this movement noteworthy.

On September 16 of this year, the one-year anniversary of Amini’s death, the New York Times published an article by Narges Mohammadi. She wrote (emphasis added):

What the government may not understand is that the more of us they lock up, the stronger we become. The morale among the new prisoners is high. Some spoke with strange ease about writing their wills before heading onto the streets to call for change. All of them, no matter how they were arrested, had one demand: Overthrow the Islamic Republic regime.

Calls for overthrowing the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are nothing new. But crowds of women on the streets of Tehran tossing hijabs on pyres may be the most blatant example yet of the real target of the Iranian opposition’s wrath: not only Khamenei and his cronies, but political Islam itself.

The boundary between mosque and state is a touchy subject in most Islamic countries. Among the most sensitive aspects of this is regulating what women can and cannot wear in public. For many Islamic countries—even those nominally under sharia law—the trend has been to restrict people from putting on religious clothing.

In 2010, Bangladeshi courts ruled it was illegal to force people to wear religious clothing in schools and the workplace. That year, Syria—a state sponsor of terrorism that is one of Iran’s closest partners—banned the niqab (a full face covering that exposes the eyes) in universities. In 2018, Algeria banned government workers from wearing niqabs. Tunisia made a similar law the next year following two terrorist attacks. In 2017, Morocco banned the sale of niqabs and burqas. In 2021, Indonesia banned public schools from forcing girls to cover their heads. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have restrictions on wearing hijabs in places like courts, schools and the workplace.

So does Tajikistan—a former Soviet republic populated mostly by Iranians—except that reports suggest women can get in trouble with the authorities for wearing the hijab in public. In 2019, Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty interviewed Nilufar Rajabova, a woman who claimed to be assaulted by police in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe for wearing a hijab. “Officials told us we should move to Afghanistan or Iran if we want to wear the hijab,” she said. “They said we’re ruining the city’s look with our clothing.”

Even some areas famous for fundamentalist laws generally leave the clothing issue alone. In Gaza, you can’t drink alcohol, and you can get killed for being a Jew—but a woman can walk outside without her hijab. Saudi Arabia recently lifted its ban on women walking outside without a head covering. Last year, the Saudi government even banned students from wearing the abaya (a full-body cloak) when taking exams.

Meanwhile, in Iran you can be tortured to death for not wearing a hijab.

Khamenei can see the rest of the Muslim world backing away from strict dress enforcement. He knows it’s unpopular with his own people. He knows he could make his regime more palatable by not forcing women to cover their heads. Yet the hijab is cause enough for Khamenei to go to war with his own people.

This brings us back to the Nobel Peace and Sakharov prizes. Previous Nobel laureates won their prizes in the contexts of the Arab-Israeli wars, the Vietnam War and even the fall of the Iron Curtain. By awarding the prize to Mohammadi, the Nobel Committee is labeling Iran’s conflict over political Islam as being just as significant.

Last year’s Sakharov Prize was given to “the Ukrainian people” after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a war that has since seen allegations of genocide. For the European Parliament, Iranians under Khamenei are being treated comparably to how Russian President Vladimir Putin is treating Ukrainians.

Awards like these are often given to spur on human rights causes encountering a lot of resistance. They’re meant to “keep the cause alive” when it looks like the cause may be dying.

This is exactly how Woman, Life, Freedom is looking right now. One year, 500 deaths and 20,000 incarcerations later, Iran’s women’s rights protests are fizzling out. The morality police are patrolling the streets. Its unknown if Mohammadi even knows she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

On October 22, Iranian state media announced Armita Geravand, a 16-year-old girl, was brain dead after the morality police assaulted her for not wearing a hijab. The news coincided with the sentencing of the two journalists who reported on Mahsa Amini’s death last year. But no violent uprising followed. The Iranian women’s rights movement knows its opportunity for change has passed. Apparently, Iran’s state media is confident enough to gloat about it.

The prizes have good intentions, but they reveal how dire the situation for many Iranians has become. Those fighting for freedom have given up. Khamenei has won the hijab war.

For Khamenei, Woman, Life, Freedom was more than another bout of unrest. It was a direct challenge to Iran’s Islamist identity. Khamenei couldn’t afford to lose this conflict. And he didn’t.

The big lesson of the Iran women’s rights movement is this: Iran is willing to war harder and longer to protect Islamism than almost anybody. It will not allow anybody to stand in its way—even its own people.

Daniel 11:40 prophesies of an end-time clash between “the king of the north” and “the king of the south” over control of the Middle East. These represent two power blocs to form in our day. Biblical and secular records show the king of the north to be a European power.

The other bloc is to Europe’s south. It has a “pushy,” provocative foreign policy. It represents a worldview fundamentally at odds with Christian Europe. Verses 42-43 show it commands a sizable proxy empire throughout the Middle East and Africa. Since the 1990s, the Trumpet has identified this “king of the south” as radical Islam, led by Iran.

The Middle East has plenty of powerful nations. Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all influential. But while some of these countries aim to become the hegemon of the Middle East, none are trying to become the hegemon of radical Islam. Egypt is a secular military regime. Turkey is a secular republic as well, despite having an Islamist-leaning president. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been reforming Saudi Arabia from a traditional, conservative country to a more forward-thinking partner of the West.

Iran is the only Middle Eastern power fighting to preserve its Islamist identity. And among radical Islamist regimes, Iran is the only state strong enough to be a world power itself. Only one country in the world has what it takes to be the king of the south: Iran. Its response to its women’s rights movement demonstrates this.

To learn where this will take the world and what the Bible says about Iran’s future, request a free copy of Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry’s booklet The King of the South.