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Mojgan Ghazirad| Longreads | November, 2022 | 9 minutes (2,335 words)
The first time I saw Gisoo tree, I thought it was a wish tree, people attaching their colorful offerings to it. But when I went close, I saw braided hairs hanging on the boughs.
Simin Daneshvar —Savushun
The teenage girl stands at her mother’s grave, a middle-aged woman who was killed by the Iranian police during recent unrest in the nation. A white veil hangs around her neck. Her eyes shine with the same rage I’ve seen in the eyes of people who have lost a loved one during the Islamic regime’s brutal crackdowns. Her hair is shorn and she holds her long tresses in her hand. The other hand is obscured by gladiolas on the grave, but I can imagine the scissors she has used to cut her hair. She is from Kermanshah, the ancient city on the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. She knows — like all Iranian women — that to mourn is to cut her hair.
Iranian women took to the streets on September 16, 2022, to protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. The Kurdish girl died in police custody after the “Morality Police” detained her for a loose hijab. Every day, I wake up anxious. I read the news, scrolling through horrifying scenes of police brutality against women who burn their scarves in the streets alongside the men who support them in cities all over the country. I go to the neonatal intensive care unit where I work as a doctor, and attend deliveries of premature and at-risk babies, but my heart flutters for yet another day of harrowing news emerging from Iran. Another day of police beating people with batons and shotguns, another day of high school girls shouting Woman Life Freedom in schools, another day of young women sauntering scarfless in front of Basiji militias in a country that has required women to cover their hair for more than 43 years. I am worried, like Iranians who live in Iran. I never thought that after 20 years of living in America, a day would come that I’d be troubled for the country I lived in during my adolescence and young adulthood. The news brings back doleful memories and a desolation that in all the years I’ve been outside Iran, I have tried to forget. But the shocking scenes are so powerful — they erupt remote, fading memories.
My mother didn’t wear hijab; neither did my grandmother or my aunts, like other modern families in Iran. But after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamic regime forced women to wear hijab outside the house in public. Even though I saw Maman grabbing a scarf and throwing it on her head before she went out, wearing hijab never materialized in my mind until the first day I attended school. I woke up early in the morning, calling Maman, ready to go to school. She smiled at my blue jumpsuit and said, “I’m afraid you’ve forgotten one thing.” She pointed to my hair and said, “They will need you to cover your hair at school.” All the way to school, I struggled to keep the scarf on my head. It was a small, square scarf Maman had given to me. The knot kept loosening under my chin and as the day went by, one side became shorter and shorter until it freed itself from the knot.
Hijab law strengthened over the years and the dress code for girls in school changed to a black scarf that covered shoulders and breasts, and an extra-long dark cloak. I remember a hot day in June, in the late ’80s. I was sitting on the low steps of our middle school yard in Tehran, wrapped head to toe in heavy hijab, trying to solve an algebra problem just before my final exam. I was writing the solution when I noticed our school principal’s shadow hovering over my head. I jumped up immediately and pulled my scarf forward. By that time, we were conditioned to shove our hair under our scarves as soon as we saw a school official, the revolutionary guard, or Basiji militia in the streets. The principal fixed her gaze on my veil and, without hesitation, snatched the scarf under my chin. “This is too loose. You need to sew a couple more stitches under your chin.” I forgot the solution I had sketched on the paper and took the test with trembling hands and an anxiety that never left me during the exam.
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After Reza Shah Pahlavi ordered mandatory unveiling of women in public in 1936, Iranian women who chose to step out of their homes and pursue higher education abandoned hijab, attended universities, and achieved an active role in society. In conservative families, women had no choice but to stay at home for their reluctance to show their hair in public. Even though the obligation to unveil was relaxed after Reza Shah abdicated in 1941, wearing hijab was dictated by the family’s core beliefs. Men in conservative families set the rules for women’s appearance in public. In those families, women continued to use chador (a long garment that covers a woman’s body from head to toe, but is open in front).
After the Islamic Revolution, the regime forced women to wear hijab and once again the government policed women’s attire. During the first decade after the Islamic government was established, Iranian society was extremely radicalized and girls were scrutinized everywhere outside the house. Even a single strand of hair could put them in trouble at school or in danger of having acid squirted in their faces in the streets. The Islamic regime defined hijab as a core value in a Muslim woman’s beliefs. Women could hardly say a word against obligatory hijab. The regime’s Morality Police enforced this core value, enshrined as a sacred family law. We are told we are sinners if we show our hair from under our scarves. Islamic regime teachers said that on Resurrection Day, women who disobeyed the hijab law would be hung from their hair over heaps of fire. They would feel their skin sizzle in hell, just to grow a new skin that would burn for eternity. We were brought up by a doctrine that humiliated and vilified female beauty and alienated us from our own hair and body.
Hijab and women’s hair was always on my mind and we discussed the subject among friends in high school. It was about that time that I read Savushun by Simin Daneshvar, a novel about the life of a landowning family in Shiraz during the British occupation of Southern Iran in World War II. The protagonist Zari, who is a quiet obedient housewife, transforms into an outspoken supporter of her husband’s cause after his death by the British occupier’s agents. In the novel, women mourn for a lost beloved by cutting their hair and attending a ritual deeply rooted in Persian culture. Zari mentions Gisoo tree — gisoo meaning long tresses of a woman in Farsi — and says, “The first time I saw Gisoo tree, I thought it was a wish tree, people attaching their colorful offerings to it. But when I went close, I saw braided hairs hanging on the boughs. The braids belonged to women who had lost a beloved young man, a husband, a brother, or a son.” The tradition of Savushun fascinated me for years. I read more and paid close attention to the symbolic actions Iranian women took during various mourning ceremonies.
In Shahnameh, the epic of Persian kings by 10th-century Persian poet Ferdowsi, Farangis cuts her black, musk-scented hair once she finds out the enemies of Iran have murdered her beloved husband, prince Siavash. She wraps the cut hair around her waist like a belt and starts the tradition of Savushun — women mourning the death of a Persian hero whose innocent blood is spilled in the valleys of the land. In the tragic story of Siavash, Farangis plays a seminal part by hiding and safekeeping her son, the next Shah of Iran, signaling her intention to remain abstinent of any sexual encounter with another hero or prince by fastening her long black hair around her waist. Her haircutting symbolizes her refusal to pursue a normal life after Siavash’s death. It is a protest against the sovereignty of Iran’s enemies.
It is not only in Shahnameh that we read about this tradition. In other literary works such as Darab-Nameh by Abu-Tahir Tarsusi, Burandokht cuts her long hair after the death of her husband, Alexander of Macedonia, and mourns him for 40 days. The tradition is so embedded in Persian literature that numerous poets after Ferdowsi — namely Hafiz, Khaghani, Salman Savoji — use cutting hair as a metaphor for mourning in their poems.
In many parts of Iran, the ritual is performed in different ways. In central Iran, when a young man dies, the close women of his family cut their tresses and hang them on an erect stone at his grave. The gray of the mother, the black of the wife, and the thin and frail hair of the daughter tangle in each other and dance with the wind. They remind the beholder of the silent mourning that continues for the young man. In Lorestan province, from ancient times, women have covered the croup of the dead man’s horse with a black veil and adorn the animal with a necklace of their tresses. In a ritual called Kotal, women sing in a procession following the horse through the streets. In Bakhtiari tribes of Iran, in a ritual called Pal Boran, women cut their hair, and either stamp on it and mourn, or put it in a clean garment belonging to the beloved and bury it with him, or gather around the hair and sing sad melodies.
In the kaleidoscope of rituals that vary based on geographical region, there seems to be a fundamental connection between hair and life. “Life” is woven among the strands of a young woman’s hair and cutting that hair implies her unwillingness that life can go on as before the loss of the beloved. Her liveliness is gone with the departure of the beloved, and so is the hair that once signified the beauty of life. She sends a clear message as she mourns: that she will appear and act differently after the tragic event.
Now for over four decades, in a culture where female hair is revered and linked to life, the Islamic regime is forcing women to wear a veil and cover their hair, degrading women’s most cherished beauty into an evil that seduces men and encourages them to commit great sins. Since the Islamic Republic was established, Iranian women have defied obligatory hijab and the patriarchal ideology that wants to oppress the female body. Women activists have challenged this government-imposed law many times, namely in the One Million Signatures campaign for gender equality in 2005. Almost always, the Islamic regime detains women activists to dampen such resistance movements. Women have turned to civil disobedience tactics like showing more of their body and minimizing their scarves to communicate their unhappiness and disapproval for the law.
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As another day of unrest unfolds in Iran, I think of the symbolic measures Iranian women are taking every day in this fight. Famous women writers, thinkers, and artists in the world have cut their hair in solidarity with them. Elif Shafak, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, and many more are among the writers and artists who have cut their hair in protest.
I walk up the stairs to the third floor, to the NICU in our hospital, to care for premature babies. On my way to the unit, I think about those Iranian girls and their protest. This time seems to be different from the past. This time, high school and even elementary school girls are demanding what Iranian women have been asking for, for decades. The short clips that trickle from Iran’s heavily filtered, government-slowed internet picture young girls facing whiteboards, their backs to the camera, hair dancing in the air, shouting Woman Life Freedom in class. I am tongue-tied by their bravery in committing such protests in school without hijab. I was a teenage girl in that country — just like them — and I know the courage needed to take off the veil, when showing their hair could cause them to get beaten or detained. It could even cost them their life, and they know this. They shout in schoolyards that they can be the next Mahsa Amini. Their courageous act of letting their long hair flow loose shows they are fully aware of the power hidden in those tresses, and it is not accidental that they shout Woman Life Freedom with their backs to the camera. They know — like their mothers and grandmothers — that their strength lies within their hair.
Once again, I look at the girl standing at her mother’s grave. She is from Kermanshah, the ancient city on the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. She is young, the same age as the schoolgirls who face the whiteboard. She is aware of the tradition of cutting hair. She cuts her hair to mourn, but above that, she acts at her beloved’s grave. She acts in defiance against the oppressor who has killed her mother and silenced her voice. She and all the schoolgirls who protest with their hair may not have read the story behind the Gisoo tree. The old women of Fars believe when they hang their braided hairs to the tree, and water it with tears, the loved departed comes back. They may not know the legend of the tree, but the collective wisdom shared by Iranian women for a thousand years runs in their veins. It whispers in their ears, and tells them that “Life” is stranded there, and to fight for freedom they must first free their hair.
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Mojgan Ghazirad is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. She has published three collections of short stories in Farsi in Iran and Europe. Her memoir, The House on Sun Street, depicts her memories of growing in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the years of war between Iran and Iraq.
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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands