These Iranian women share how they push back against Islamic rules at home

Iranian women are turning to social media to share their “before and after” photos online with the caption, “I was born in a religious family, but then I tore the family's virtue apart." Many of them are young girls who were brought up religiously under the influence of their families. But they say they’ve now found their own way, although sometimes in spite of psychological or even physical violence. 

Iranian girls and young women have been sharing photos of themselves online before and after living with their religious families.
Iranian girls and young women have been sharing photos of themselves online before and after living with their religious families. © Observers

In one photo, they are wearing modest clothing – a black chador covering most of their body – and a stoic expression. In the other, they have taken off the headscarf, are wearing a bit of makeup and have a slight smile. This is how Iranian women are sharing their stories online.

The photos – shared on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok since mid-April – show how they rebelled against their religious families and came out on the other side. Images like these have gone viral online and other young women and girls in the same situation have begun asking for advice on how to make the same changes.

Since the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement began in Iran in September 2022, more and more women have begun defying Islamic dress codes and guidelines in public spaces. 

They have continued despite ongoing pressure from authorities and the morality police, who have begun cracking down on compulsory hijab laws in parks, public transportation, universities and even hospitals – and refusing services to women who fail to comply. 

>> Read more on The Observers: Iran’s hijab war continues with business shutdowns and surveillance cameras

Our Observers in Iran, however, tell us that a growing number of Iranians seem to be defending women who refuse to wear the hijab out in public.

But for many Iranian girls and young women, the fight for social freedoms began at home.

‘My parents' reaction was insults, humiliation and physical violence’

Parnian (not her real name) is one of the young women who has shared her “before and after” photos on social media. 

It was another online challenge for me. I saw it like that but at the same time, it was a way to show that if we fight we can progress. We are stronger than they think. I found many others like me – seeing their photos was heartwarming.

I was born into a very conservative, religious family in a town in central Iran. Since I was four or five years old, I had to wear a black chador [Editor’s note: an Islamic headscarf that covers the hair and body]. I had to pray five times a day and fast from nine years old. I wasn’t allowed to use Instagram or any other social media. Anything in the real world or online where a man could be present was forbidden to me. I lived like this until I was 14 years old.

At that age, I started comparing myself to other girls, to the freedom they had, and to the relationships they had. I said to myself, “Something is wrong in your life”. I also started researching and reading books, and eventually, I found out that I had to make my own decisions and go my own way. That’s when my struggle with my parents began.

Everything changed when I was 18. I began dressing how I liked, stopped partaking in religious rituals and started dating boys. My parents' reaction was everything you can imagine: insults, humiliation and physical violence. They didn’t let me go to one of the universities I was accepted into, because they wanted me to go to a girls-only university.

I have been beaten by my father, I do not know how many times. Once, he took me out to the desert and beat me with a stick. He told me to give him my boyfriend's number, even though I didn’t even have a mobile phone and wasn’t allowed to go out alone.

I had to leave their house. I moved to Tehran to live with a relative of my mother who is understanding and very cool. I bought a mobile phone, I work, I buy clothes I like, I dress the way I like, I go out with friends and colleagues … I live the way I want to the extent that I can in this country.

But the threats and pressure from my family continue through phone calls and messages. In the last one, my father threatened that if the member of my mother's family that I live with does not kick me out, he will divorce my mother! 

And since the "Woman, Life, Freedom" revolution started, their pressure has increased. They are afraid that the power of this revolution will make me even more rebellious.

But I am hopeful. If I have survived until now, I can make more progress. I am trying to apply again to a university inside or outside Iran. Sometimes the only way is to be strong. You do not have an option B.

‘They finally understand we must respect each other's way of life’

Rima (not her real name) is another woman who has shared photos of herself both under her family's religious pressures and now. 

My father is religious but more relaxed, while my mother was ultra-conservative and forced every single detail of Sharia law on me. When I was 12, I started questioning religion and our lifestyle. I wore the chador until I was 15, and then my mother died.

After that, reading books helped me find my own beliefs. I found disturbing contradictions in religion and I realised I did not want to live with these contradictions and have to convince myself with faith.

My father and the rest of the family are religious, but they did not want to force me. They talked to me and tried to convince me otherwise: "OK, you don’t have to wear a chador, but wear a hijab [which covers only the hair and not the entire body]". Then they said, "Ok, you can take off your headscarf inside, but keep it on in the street". I pushed them back little by little. And since the "Woman, Life, Freedom" revolution, even the little bit of pressure that remained has disappeared. They have finally understood that we must respect each other's way of life and they have accepted me as I am.

Sometimes we argue about "things girls can or cannot do". They can not force me and I do what I want.

Following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian who died while in the custody of the morality police in September 2022, Iran saw months of mass protests. Girls and young women have led the protests, chanting the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom”.

Police crackdowns on the protests have resulted in more than 537 deaths, thousands of injuries and tens of thousands of arrests.