Iranian men are donning the headscarf while women are taking it off, in defiance of Iran's mandatory hijab law. Photo: Instagram/@alexandrabertels
Iranian men are making headlines this week by virtue of a curious protest: they're donning headscarves to mock their government.
Standing against the mandatory hijab law instituted shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, men have been uploading pictures of themselves to social media - often standing beside women with uncovered hair - with captions like: "Compulsion is not a good feeling. I hate when they used morality police in order to force my wife to wear compulsory hijab."
It's an interesting reversal of the hijab solidarity campaigns we have seen in Australia, such as WISH (Women In Solidarity with Hijabis), where non-Muslim women shared pictures of themselves in headscarves to support the right of Australian Muslim women (the primary targets of anti-Islam attacks), to wear them in peace.
All of which goes to show how any article of clothing can indeed be either liberating or oppressive depending on whether or not one is forced to wear it.
That said, this campaign also highlights how flippant western discourse tends to be when it comes to the issue of Muslim women's dress codes. Our dialogue often borders on the absurd, with hijabs and burqas portrayed as either the very epitome of evil or as completely innocuous.
The reality is: they are neither. Hijab is a demonstration of faith yes, but for as long as it has existed it has also been used as a tool to keep women subordinate. We do Muslim women all over the world a disservice when we fail to keep that in mind.
But more interesting than how we perceive the hijab in the west is what #MenInHijab means for people in Iran. Those of us familiar with this country's recent history know this campaign is just the latest chapter in the long-running feud between the Iranian people and their government.
Iranians have shown time and again that they are far less socially conservative than the men that rule their lives. This should not come as a surprise. Unlike in more traditionally conservative societies such as Saudi Arabia, Islamism was forced on the people, quite suddenly and without their consent.
When theocrats hijacked the people's revolution, they stole the dream of returning to the fledgeling secular socialist democracy that Iran was before their popular elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, was overthrown in a violent coup in 1953. He was replaced with the CIA-approved shah who had been forced into exile.
In his brief two years of leadership, Mossadegh had introduced a range of progressive reforms, such as social security and rent control. He also nationalised the oil fields, which attracted the ire of Great Britain given it had hithero kept all of Iran's oil profits for itself. It was this move that led to Mossadegh's downfall.
Don't mistake Mossadegh's progressivism for atheism. He was a practicing Muslim and Iran was a Muslim country. Although not yet a fully-fledged democratic nation, it's burgeoning democracy was destroyed, not by Islam, but by a western-backed coup d'état that replaced a popular leader with a dictator who was so ruthless and reviled, a revolution was inevitable.
Sadly, the spirit of that revolution was betrayed. And ever since, Iranians have been rebelling against the intolerable rule that followed.
From popular protests such as the Green Revolution of 2009, to women chopping off their hair and wearing men's clothes in attempts to thwart the morality police, to young people risking it all in underground parties where they mingle, drink alcohol, and have sex, Iranains have been subverting their rulers. Yes, shock horror, Muslim youth like to party too.
Perhaps the most famous campaign protesting the government's interference in the private lives of the people is #MyStealthyFreedom, created by Masih Alinejad, the woman who is also behind #MenInHijab. On the My Stealthy Freedom Facebook page, women, again risking arrest, upload photos of themselves without a headscarf.
This is how irresistible the lure of freedom is. People will literally risk their lives for even the smallest taste of it. And freedom is one thing that the people of Iran have been denied for far too long.
The "battle" is not between Islam and the west or Islam and freedom or Islam and democracy. It is between authoritarian traditionalists and progressives – between those who seek to control and those who seek to liberate.
It is a battle that rages with varying degrees of intensity in every society in the world.
The Iranian people's battle with their government is made even tougher because of Iran's pariah status on the international stage. The only-recently lifted sanctions imposed by the United States did little to deter the government or loosen its hold on power, but they certainly made the people's lives that much more isolated and miserable.
In our current climate, where anti-Muslim sentiment has become so normalised that those who espouse it are called "brave" and where country after country is threatening to shut its doors to all Muslims, the casualties of this discrimination include progressive Muslims – like the Iranian men with hijabs and the stealthy women without them.
The more we target Islam as a whole instead of the power structures exploiting it, the less support we lend to people like these men and women on the frontlines of battling authoritarian fundamentalism.