When Iran elected Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013, many saw it as a sign of the changing times. At his swearing-in ceremony, Rouhani stressed the need for openness and trust with the rest of the world in a speech that made waves both inside the isolated country and outside, as Western powers concerned about Iran's nuclear capabilities looked on.
Three years on and a historic nuclear agreement later, Iran is making tentative steps towards opening up. But the country is still largely controlled by conservative hardliners, both in politics and society.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has imposed strict cultural rules on its people, and policing women's dressing and demeanor is a large part of it. Iranian women are required to don hijabs, a rule enforced by the state's "morality police." Punishments for women who do not cover their heads include fines and imprisonment.
Masih Alinejad, the activist behind My Stealthy Freedom, a movement that encourages women to post photos of themselves without the headscarf, recently invited Iranian men to join their protest. Alinejad asked men to post a photo of themselves wearing hijabs next to their headscarf-free spouses or female relatives under the hashtag #MenInHijab.
Alinejad told A Plus in an email that she was inspired by an incident involving Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif when he was in Paris. Zarif was challenged by a French female lawmaker on Iran requiring foreigners to don the headscarf, and replied that visitors had no issue with the hijab.
Outraged, Alinejad decided to respond by photoshopping a hijab onto a photo of Zarif. "In a repressive theocracy, like Iran, you have no choice but to wear the compulsory hijab," she said. "The alternative is being beaten, losing your job and even jail time. And if women, both Iranian and non-Iranian, had a choice, they may not opt for the hijab."
She posted the photo on My Stealthy Freedom on Facebook and asked, "Would men don the compulsory hijab and take selfies of themselves and tell me how it felt?"
I wanted the men to experience wearing compulsory hijab in the suffocating heat of Iran's summer. I wanted to poke fun at the dress codes for women but get the men to join the women to challenge these repressive laws.
Alinejad didn't think many men would participate, but they proved her wrong.
"The response has been amazing," she said. "In Iran's cultural wars, Iranian people crave greater social freedoms. This is our way of fighting back. And the most obvious way is to challenge the enforcement of headscarves and other coverings for women. All we — men and women — want is freedom to choose what we wear."
She also made a reference to the United States presidential election and how Americans are so close to electing its first ever female commander in chief.
"The American people get a chance to elect a female president," she said. "How ridiculous is it that Iranian women cannot get to choose how to dress?"