“Turban Tossing” in Iran: Reflections on an Act of Anticlerical Revenge

On 16th September 2022, the “morality police” (pers. Gasht-e Ershād, lit. “Guidance Patrol”) run by the Islamist government of Iran detained 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish Zhinā Mahsā Amini for “improperly” wearing the Islamic headscarf (pers. hejāb) in public. Amini subsequently died in custody, reportedly at the hands of morality police officers. In the weeks that followed, a protest movement swept Iran, adopting the Kurdish feminist slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” (pers. zan, zendegi, āzādi”, kurm. “jin, jiyan, azadî”) as its central motto. These protests have since evolved into a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. Following the brutal encounter of Iranian governmental forces with demonstrators, an estimated 378 people were killed as of 20 November 2022.1

A variety of anticlerical chants feature prominently among the protestors’ slogans, both inside and outside Iran. Mottos like “Bullets, Tanks, and Rockets – the Mullahs can bugger off!” (pers. “Tup, Tānk, Feshfesheh – Ākhund bāyad gom besheh!“) and “This is the Year of Blood – Seyyed ʿAli will be overthrown” (pers. “Emsāl Sāl-e Khuneh – Seyyed ʿAli Sarneguneh!”) are expressive of the protesting masses’ turn against the political-clerical establishment and its head, the dictatorial Supreme Leader Seyyed ʿAli Khāmeneʾi. Alongside the protests, a series of videos continues to trend on social media showing overwhelmingly young Iranians knocking off the turbans of random Shi’ite clerics they encounter on the streets. This practice has since been dubbed ʿAmmāmeh-Parāni, a term best translated as “Turban Tossing”.

Figure 1: A young woman is tossing the turban of a random cleric while her friend is filming the scene, https://twitter.com/mamadporii/status/1591189615649726466, last accessed 22nd November 2022.

Social media users sympathetic to the protests have gleefully shared dozens of videos displaying acts of “Turban Tossing”. Meanwhile, the heavily censored media landscape in the Islamic Republic of Iran has reacted along predictable lines. Commentators in hardliner media outlets labelled “Turban Tossing” a “satanic trend” (MashreghNews).2 The ultraconservative paper Javān, affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), blamed its spread on “Jewish-Saudi hirelings” intent on insulting the Iranian clergy as one front of their “hybrid war”.3 The author writing in Javān moreover drew the readers’ attention to the practice of “Turban Kissing” (pers. ʿammāmeh-busi) that pro-governmental individuals had instigated as a dissenting reaction to “Turban Tossing”.

Figure 2: A man approaches a cleric and kisses his turban as a sign of respect. The scene first is reminiscent of videos displaying acts of “Turban Tossing” but then takes a different turn, https://twitter.com/rezaalizadeh74m/status/1589708485029433344, last accessed 22nd November 2022.

Newspapers with a less radical tone refrained from ascribing “Turban Tossing” to satanic or foreign forces. A commentator in the newspaper Ettelāʿāt suggested that the practice, “although not being worse than some of the morality police’s past behaviour”, nevertheless was “nothing short of it” and “unworthy of a moral society”.4 Media outlets associated with the reformist spectrum, a political faction that during the past decade has lost its credibility for the bulk of Iranians, called “Turban Tossing” a mistake since “spreading hatred” was not conducive to equality and democracy (Sharq).5 Indeed, a report appearing in the London-based Middle East Eye suggests that the practice has divided the protest movement, with some celebrating “Turban Tossing” for giving clerics a taste of their own medicine and others condemning it as “cheap” and illegitimately taring all Shi’ite clerics with the same brush.6

Foreign observers are prone to misread “Turban Tossing” if they lack the knowledge necessary to contextualise the practice. German investigative journalist Mariam Noori used her personal Instagram page to criticise users for sharing videos in which “Iranians knock off the prayer caps of elderly Muslim men taking a walk on the streets” and labelled the act “Islamophobic”.        

Figure 3: Instagram story by German investigative journalist Mariam Noori. Noori appears to have deleted the story shortly after. Screenshot archived on the 3rd of November 2022, @Noori_Mariam_

Irrespective of whether the practice should be considered (im)moral or (un)helpful to the protestors’ cause, it must be stated that “Turban Tossing” does not randomly target expressions of Muslimness, as suggested by Noori’s statement.7 Rather, the practice is specifically directed to ordained members of the Shi’ite clerical “guild” (pers. senf). Only Shi’ite scholars who have attended the Shi’ite theological seminary (pers. Howzeh-ye ʿElmi) and passed a set of exams testing their religious knowledge and moral suitability are “invested” (pers. talabbos) with the right to wear turban, ʿAbā (a long, sleeveless outer garment), and Qabā (a long, collarless shirt worn under the ʿAbā). This ensemble makes members of the clerical guild publicly identifiable.            

Figure 4: The Graduation/Ordination Ceremony (pers. Marāsem-e ʿAmmāmeh-Gozāri) entitling Shi’ite seminarians to publicly wear the dress of the clerical guild, https://cdn.asriran.com/files/fa/news/1397/2/16/844408_562.jpg, last accessed 22nd November 2022.

Partakers in “Turban Tossing” hold members of the Shi’ite clergy collectively responsible for the injustice and oppression in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Given the theocratic nature of the Iranian state as well as the tremendous overlap between religious and political stakeholders of power, the youth resorts to “Turban Tossing” to let off steam and voice their dissent. Those involved moreover refuse to distinguish between individual religious scholars, given that their personal experiences of the past decades have broadly disillusioned them with the clerical guild as a whole.8

“Turban Tossing” is not without historical precedents. In the run-up to the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republic’s founder Āyatollāh Khomeini himself called on young Iranians to remove the turbans of Shi’ite clerics who supported the Iranian Pahlavi Shah.9 Generally, “removal of the clerical dress” (pers. khalʿe lebās) offers a way to literally “defrock” clerics who have forfeited their religious authority. Leading critics of the Iranian government have acknowledged the legitimacy of the popular frustrations with the Iranian clergy, among them the Friday Prayer Imam (pers. Emām Jomʿeh) of the city of Zāhedān, ʿAbdolhamid Esmāʿilzahi. A member of the marginalised Sunni minority, Esmāʿilzahi used his Friday sermon on the 18th November 2022 to tell listeners:

“The new actions in our country that have become known as ‘Turban Tossing’ have worried all of us. They are indicating that the people are upset and have certain expectations of the religious scholars [ʿolamāʾ]. If these expectations remain unfulfilled, the popular encounter becomes like this.”10

Esmāʿilzahi likewise warned of a growing hatred against the religious clergy; his above statement illustrates, however, that he, unlike the commentators in Iranian newspapers, holds the religious clergy primarily responsible for this tendency – not the protestors.

Especially when carried out by women, the act of “Turban Tossing” entails a powerful symbolism: after decades in which women have been harassed on the streets if they did not conform to the clerical ideal of modesty, they strike back by deriding the clergy’s authority and preventing them from wearing their religious garment. “Turban Tossing”, alongside its broader anticlerical thrust, is therefore best characterised as an act of revenge. Social media users have taken the opportunity to satirically draw upon videos displaying “Turban Tossing”, for instance by founding the “Iranian Turban Throwing Federation” or publishing fake news items proclaiming that religious seminaries in Iran now provided the clergy with “Flight-Proof Turbans”.

Almost all instances of “Turban Tossing” appear to be non-violent and do not go beyond being a physically harmless “prank”. There are, however, a few videos that, alongside the tossing of the clerical turban, also feature a physical beating of clerics. Such cases demonstrate that “Turban Tossing”, despite its symbolical strength as a vehicle of resistance, can also segue into overt violence. Granted that such attacks ought to nonetheless be seen in the context they have emerged in – a context of brutal and arbitrary violence against peaceful mass protests – there is no doubt that a post-Islamist Iran will need to be built upon reconciliation. With the current status quo, however, the first steps on the path to this reconciliation can only be taken by the political-clerical establishment.

— Benedikt Römer

  1. IranWire, 2022, At Least 378 killed In Iran Protest Crackdown, Rights Group Says, available online: https://iranwire.com/en/politics/110126-at-least-378-killed-in-iran-protest-crackdown-rights-group-says/, last accessed 22nd November 2022. []
  2. MashreghNews, 2022, The Satanic Trend of Turban Tossing Continues [pers. “Edāmeh-ye Ravand-e Sheytāni-ye ʿAmmāmeh-Parāni”], available online here, last accessed 22nd November 2022. []
  3. Javān, 2022, Continuing Spread of Turban Kissing and Expressed Reverence to the Clergy in the Central Province [pers. “Edāmeh-ye Puyesh-e ʿAmmāmeh-Busi va Takrim-e Rowhāniyyat dar Ostān-e Markazi”], available online here, last accessed 22nd November 2022. []
  4. Fathollāh Āmoli (Ettelāʿāt), 2022, Lest we Lose our Morals [pers. “Mabādā Akhlāq rā Bebāzim!”], available online: https://www.ettelaat.com/mobile/archives/313918?device=phone, last accessed 22nd of November. []
  5. Hamzeh Nowzarri (Sharq), 2022, Cognitive Errors of these Days [pers. “Khatā-hā-ye Shenākhti-ye in Ruz-hā”], available online here, last accessed 22nd of November 2022. []
  6. Middle East Eye, 2022, Iran: Protesters’ ‘turban throwing’ divides Mahsa Amini movement, available online: https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iran-mahsa-amini-protesters-turban-throwing-divides, last accessed 22nd of November 2022. []
  7. The concept of “Islamophobia” in generally used to refer to a particular type of anti-Muslim racism. The 2019 Routledge International Handbook of Islamophobia for instance adopts the definition by the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims that states: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” (cf. Zempi and Awan 2019). []
  8. An instructive read on Tehran youth culture and youth’s struggle with state-promoted values is Shahram Khosravi’s ethnography Young and Defiant in Tehran, see Khosravi 2008. Set in the early 2000s, Khosravi already then referred to the phenomenon of din-gorizi – the widespread “escaping from religion”, Khosravi 2008, p. 128. A 2020 study by two Netherlands-based Iranian researchers suggests that only around 40% of Iranians identify with different branches of Islam, see Ammar Maleki and Pooyan Tamimi Arab (2020): Iranians’ Attitudes toward Religion: A 2020 Survey Report, The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN). []
  9. Masʿud Āzar (BBC Persian), 2022, The Iranian Protests: When did “Turban Tossing” Begin? [pers. “Eʿterāzāt-e Irān: ‘ʿAmmāmeh-Parāni az cheh Zamāni Shoruʿ Shod?”], available online: https://www.bbc.com/persian/articles/c0302x8335zo, last accessed 22nd of November 2022. []
  10. Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi (YouTube), 2022, Friday Sermon of our Mawlānā ʿAbdolhamid [pers. “Khotbeh-ye Jomʿeh-ye Mowlānā ʿAbdolhamid], available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vKJEgYWOv8, last accessed 22nd November 2022. []

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