This project reflects on hijab, a much-hated symbol of oppression for the majority of Iranian women.

Every day, Iranians—especially women—defy the regime through courageous, even if small, acts of defiance. They might wear their headscarf too low, don colors that are too bright, go out with pants that are too tight or wear manteaux [coats] that are a bit too short. Taken together, these signs of defiance are affecting change, allowing for a slow but visible evolution. The regime responds to this behavior with regular crack-downs—women are arrested and harassed—and by creating new laws, like the recent ban forbidding women from riding bicycles.

With the windows of my Tehran apartment covered with tinfoil, the camera’s flash was not be visible from outside; we were safe to create and let creativity flow. The women each threw their brightly colored headscarf in the air, and while it inescapably floated back to them, I captured their brave challenge to repressive Iranian laws.

—Marinka Masséus

Editors’ Note: Below you’ll find a few reflections from Masséus’ portrait subjects—

© Marinka Masséus

“As a girl, I did not want to follow a rule that was forced on me! But I had to, ‘cause if something is not obeyed here, there will be consequences! And I did not want to trouble myself or my family in any way! So, I followed the laws, but that did not make me a believer! From school I always heard that we all are brothers and sisters. That we are all equal! But in real life…well, there was no equality! ‘Cause I had to cover up for the men! How is that equal?! How come they didn’t have to cover up for me?!”

© Marinka Masséus

“Revolution happened in Iran two years before I was born, so when I grew up I thought this is how it must be—that women should look like that. But when I checked my mom’s photos or I saw movies, I found a paradox: why is there a difference between us and the little girls in other countries? I grew up with this paradox throughout my teenage years and afterwards. I had this war inside myself—I didn’t want to wear scarves or long shirts. I wanted to have the wind in my hair and be exposed to sunlight like a normal person! But I didn’t understand the real truth until the government made some special police for compulsory hijab called ‘gashte ershad.’ I was arrested by the police and they treated me like a criminal (taking my photo, fingerprinting me). I got the bitter truth. I felt like a bird stuck in a cage. My natural way of living is different than the way our government and society forced me to be. All my life I tried to respect others’ beliefs, but literally no one in the government has respected mine. Every time I want to go out I feel someone’s oppression and injustice on my head. I really feel imprisoned in my scarf and hijab.”

© Marinka Masséus

“My parents were communists. They fought for freedom against the Shah, and then were betrayed by Khomeini and his regime. I carry their fire for freedom in me. After the government repressed the Green Movement in 2009, many of the young people have given up hope. But I haven’t. When I look around in the streets and see the bright colors, the girls wearing their hijabs so low with their hair showing, I see hope. I see change. Even 5 years ago, it was all brown and black, like the regime wants. But now: colors, colors, colors! So, every day I wear my brightly colored hijab and get on my bike (which is against the law now) to defy the regime. I will live my life and not hide who I am. I have hope.”

© Marinka Masséus

“As an Iranian peace activist, I always suffered from the compulsory hijab in my country. I always felt the pressure of being controlled. In recent years, when I could travel to other countries, for the first time in my life I felt the amazing sense of wind in my hair. This is so sad; people in other countries never appreciate what they have because they are not aware that there are countries where women are still fighting for their basic needs. The burden is beyond the foreigners’ imaginations, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

If you’re interested in seeing more articles on topics like this, we’d recommend the following articles: The Hijab as Power: Explorations in Northern Yemen, a strong and unexpected photographic exploration of the controversial hijab shot by a Yemeni-American photographer; Veiled Truths, portraits of 20 Iranian women photographed through their veils; and Urban Burqa, the follow-up to the acclaimed series Blue Burqa in a Sunburnt Country, a project that hints at the growing sense of challenge, confrontation, and isolation facing refugees in the current climate of extremism.