In her sophomore year at UF, Iman Zawahry stepped into a Walmart with her friends sporting a hijab for the first time as they shopped for groceries.
Now a UF media production, management and technology lecturer and filmmaker, Zawahry was thrilled to wear the Muslim head covering and even sent a mass email to her loved ones announcing her decision to wear it.
To her, the hijab was a way of standing out.
“I’ve always been a big personality and outgoing — very American. I really wanted to portray that,” Zawahry said. “I’m going to wear a hijab to dispel these stereotypes.”
The hijab, a head covering often worn by Muslim women as a symbol of modesty, has been at the forefront of global conversations regarding women’s rights since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died while in Iranian police custody Sept. 16, 2022.
Three days prior, Amini had been arrested for not wearing her hijab properly. Iranian police claimed the cause of her death was heart failure from preexisting health conditions, but eyewitness reports and hospital scans suggest Amini had physical injuries to the head and body.
Amini’s death led to worldwide protests in countries like France, Italy, Turkey and the United States. Decades-long protests primarily organized by Iranian women to abolish the 1983 hijab law developed into a nationwide movement in Iran against the Islamic Republic.
The republic has been accused of suppressing freedom since its establishment in 1979. To prevent Iranians from spreading anti-government messages, it has restricted internet access, jailed over 18,000 individuals and sentenced at least 100 protestors to prison or execution.
As of Dec. 27, according to Iran Human Rights, Iranian security forces have killed 476 people — including 64 children and 34 women — involved in the 2022 protests.
Following Amini’s death, some like Zawahry are still steadfast in their commitment to wearing a hijab. Others like Nabiha Nur, a 21-year-old UF advertising senior, never enjoyed wearing it since her mother made her at age 10. Once she reached college, she stopped wearing it.
“My relationship with the hijab has always been conflicted,” Nur said.
In response to Amini’s death and the Iranian government's repression, protests have even made their way to Gainesville.
Ziba Ahmadi, a 44-year-old business owner and community leader, decided to start protests in Gainesville after seeing videos about Iranian protesters who died. Ahmadi sympathized with the mothers who lost their children and couldn’t sit back without trying to do something about it, she said.
Since Oct. 22, she has organized weekly protests for Iran at the corner of Southwest 13th St. and West University Avenue. The protests usually draw the local Iranian community together.
But Ahmadi hopes for more outsider involvement.
“Unfortunately, I had maybe one or two Americans who joined,” she said. “It’s not just about the country Iran. It’s about women’s rights. It’s about humanity.”
Maryam Tehranipoor, a 46-year-old UF information technology professional and regular attendee of Ahmadi’s weekly anti-hijab protests, saw people in cars honk their horns and hold their fists out in solidarity. She was happy to receive the support, but she wished for a way to get bystanders invested in what’s happening in Iran.
“What I think is missing is how we can make this thing speak to their minds,” Tehranipoor said.
By the end of 2022, Time magazine declared the women of Iran as heroes of the year, highlighting their bravery and resistance to the Islamic Republic.
Tehranipoor was initially happy to see Time recognize her people, she said, but she found its coverage on Iran inadequate. Strict government regulation of news in Iran and little coverage of Iran in the U.S. has made it difficult for non-Iranians to become better informed about the regime’s actions, she said.
Sarra Tlili, a 58-year-old UF associate professor of Arabic language and literature, believes the issue behind the protests mainly lies within government corruption.
“The hijab is the tip of the iceberg,” Tlili said.
The anti-government protests have ultimately drawn attention to the hijab, engendering conversation about whether it infringes on women’s rights and whether anti-hijab protests hurt women who wish to wear it.
Some Muslims, like Tlili, believe the hijab is mandated according to the Quran, a principal scripture in Islam. Tlili, however, disagrees with the premise that Iranian women should be forced to wear the hijab because they live in an Islamic country.
“It’s something between that woman and God,” Tlili said. “If a woman is not wearing the hijab as an act of faith, it loses its meaning — it’s as if she’s not wearing it.”
Though Iranians like Ahmadi and Tehranipoor stress these protests exist to highlight their government’s oppression, some Muslims may feel their beliefs are put at risk of being trivialized because the hijab is at the center of the debate.
Zainab Asad, a 21-year-old UF sociology senior, said people are quick to speak for women who don’t want to wear the hijab. But when it comes time to stand up for women who are fired for wearing one or told they can’t, people rarely speak up.
“It sometimes boils down to this white savior type — people being like, ‘Oh no, we’re freeing you, sweetie,’” Asad said. “No ma’am, thank you so much, I would like to wear it.”
In her course “The Arab Woman,” Tlili observed that some students assume Muslim women wear the hijab against their will, she said.
The real problem Muslim women deal with is having to fight to wear the hijab, Tlili said.
From 1936 to 1941, before its current hijab mandate, Iran banned women from wearing the hijab to make them dress more like Europeans in an effort to modernize. The burqa, another type of Muslim veil, is currently banned in 16 countries.
Both hijab bans and hijab mandates exist to control women, Zawahry said.
She also sees a problem with overgeneralization.
“This is the worst thing. It’s pinning Muslim women against each other,” Zawahry said. “Muslim women are not a monolith. There’s no model of what a Muslim looks like.”
Ahmadi and Tehranipoor believe the situation in Iran is a human problem that transcends boundaries, politics and religion.
“It’s not hijab,” Tehranipoor said. “It’s just facing a government that, if being left unchecked, it’s going to spread what it’s been doing to its own country to others.”
Ahmadi emphasizes urgency in her weekly protests.
One sign that Ahmadi and fellow protesters wave every Saturday reads, “Act today, tomorrow is too late,” in bold red letters.
As protesters of all ages in Iran continue to lose their lives, Ahmadi vows to continue holding protests for Iran until her country sees victory. Freedom.
Contact Zarin Ismail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @zarintismail.
Zarin Ismail is a second-year journalism major and a staff writer for the Avenue. She has previously worked as a copy editor for The Alligator. She's also a writer for Strike Magazine. When she’s not writing, Zarin watches international TV shows, shops at thrift stores and plays with her two cats.