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To Veil or not to Veil: that is not the question




On September 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman in Iran was allegedly killed by Iran’s Morality Police, after getting detained for not wearing the hijab properly (Askew, 2022). As of December 2022, at least 458 people have been killed, including 63 children and young adults. Women cut their hair and burnt their headscarves all around the world to show support for Iranian women (Askew, 2022). In the same year in mid-February, Ayesha Shifa, a 16-year-old Muslim woman in Karnataka was denied entry into her school on the basis of her adorning the hijab (Frayer, 2022). Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment have been rising in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, critics say. Soon enough, both these experiences led to widespread protests (Frayer, 2022). In Iran, Amini’s death led to the ongoing revolution against the Islamic regime, with the masses chanting “Zen, Zindagi, Azaadi” (Women, life, freedom) (Iranian sociologists analyze the antigovernment protests 2023). In India, the violation of Shifa’s right to education based on her religious expression led to pushback against the Hindu nationalist government (Frayer, 2022). How can these two seemingly contradictory ideals, where one is fighting to wear the hijab and one is fighting not to wear it, conclude in a fight against the people currently in power?


The hijab has never been just about a piece of cloth. It has historically been used as a cultural and political tool against governments, and not just a religious and ideological symbol. In Iran, before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Muslim veils were a symbol of the oppressive Shah regime (Frayer, 2022). And even when it was made compulsory in 1983 (Askew, 2022), there were protests against it, but they were not surrounding the religious ideology of the hijab itself. In India, the hijab is currently being used by Karnataka schoolgirls as a way to assert their own agency and their religious freedom. It’s her way of establishing her identity as a Muslim woman, in the growing unrest against her community in contemporary India (Kukreja, 2022).


The question, therefore, is not about the hijab. It is not even just about religious freedom and expression. It is about bodily autonomy. What the women from the two different nations, with ideals contrary to one another, are truly fighting for, is a woman’s right to choose (Frayer, 2022). It is contended, in both nations, whether the practice of veiling is an essential part of Islam or not. The Iranian government says that because it is, it should be enforceable by law (Siddiqui, 2022). And in India, the argument is that because it isn’t, not allowing it in schools is not a violation of the right to religious freedom and expression (Siddiqui, 2022). What those two arguments miss is that regardless of whether it is or is not a major part of the religion, it should be a woman’s choice to wear the hijab or not. Women should not be forced to wear it, neither should they be forced to remove it, the argument for self-determination is as simple as that.


According to the United Nations Human Rights Special Procedures published in 2017, “Women’s human rights include the rights to equality, to dignity, autonomy, information and bodily integrity and respect for private life and the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health, without discrimination; as well as the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” (OHCHR, 2017). The right of a woman to make autonomous decisions about her own body is at the core of her fundamental human rights, including her right to equality and privacy. This right does not just extend to her reproductive rights but also to how they choose to dress and express themselves (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2023).


What began in Iran as a fight against the mandatory nature of the hijab, divulged into a nationwide struggle against the Islamic regime’s oppressive governance. What began as a girl fighting for her right to education, has now sparked a nationwide debate on religious fundamentalism, and stumped even India’s Supreme Court on the matter. The fight, therefore, was never just about the hijab, it was about the right of self-determination that all women have as a basic human right. Indian right-wing conservatives, in order to vilify and demonize Islam, take the often Islamophobic stance that the protests in Iran are Iranian women’s fundamental fight against oppression that is inevitable in Islam (Iftikhar, 2022). They disguise their prejudice as a “feminist” stance and consider that Islamic values are antithetical to women's rights, which truly misses the point of a woman’s right to choose (Iftikhar, 2022). On the other hand, criticizing the Islamic regime in Iran is also not inherently islamophobic, it is about taking a stance against governmental control over what a woman can and cannot do, simply because they are a woman.


Regardless, there is also a notion of western ideological supremacy that we need to acknowledge when criticizing the practice of veiling in Islam. The West views the hijab as an object of oppression and a sign of backwardness, separate from their own definition of freedom and liberty (Siddiqui, 2022). Yes, it is important to gauge the historical and societal subversion of women when it comes to practices that seem contrary to women’s right to choose. What is to say that the women who want to cover their heads for religious reasons aren’t inherently forced into it, and feel like they do not truly have a choice, due to generational and communal coercion? Although this is an important analysis and criticism, how do we draw the line between re-education and forceful conversion? Regardless of the historical reasons, it should not mean that women should not currently have the right to choose whether or not to wear a headdress. Many Muslim women choose not to wear it, just like the women in Iran. Many women do, just like the women in India. What the fight is about at the crux is that they CAN choose.


That is what connects India and Iran.


References:

Askew, J. (2022, December 20). Iran protests: What caused them? Are they different this time? Will the regime fall? euronews.com. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.euronews.com/2022/12/20/iran-protests-what-caused-them-who-is-generation-z-will-the-unrest-lead-to-revolution

Center for Reproductive Rights. (2023, January 5). Safe and Legal Abortion is a Woman Human Right. reproductiverights.org. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.reproductiverights.org/sites/default/files/documents/pub_bp_safeandlegal.pdf

Frayer, L. (2022, August 24). As India turns 75, Muslim girls are suing to wear the hijab - and protect secularism. NPR.org. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.npr.org/2022/08/24/1117415037/india-muslim-hijab-ban-schools

Frayer, L. (2022, October 29). In Iran, women are protesting the hijab. in India, they're suing to wear it. NPR.com. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.npr.org/2022/10/29/1131830324/india-hijab-iran-protests

Iftikhar, A. (2022, November 4). Please don't let Islamophobia Co-Opt hijab protests. bridge.georgetown.edu. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://bridge.georgetown.edu/research/please-dont-let-islamophobia-co-opt-hijab-protests/

Iran International. (2023, January 7). Iranian sociologists analyze the antigovernment protests. iranintl.com. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.iranintl.com/en/202301078172

Kukreja, A. (2022, February 22). Muslim women in India protest state’s ban on hijab in schools. NBCNews.com. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/muslim-women-india-protest-hijab-ban-rcna17038

Siddiqui, F. R. (2022, November 28). Iran anti-hijab protest: The perspective of Indian Muslims: Opinion. dailysabah.com. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.dailysabah.com/opinion/op-ed/iran-anti-hijab-protest-the-perspective-of-indian-muslims

Siddiqui, F. R. (2022, November 28). Iran anti-hijab protest: The perspective of Indian Muslims: Opinion. dailysabah.com. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.dailysabah.com/opinion/op-ed/iran-anti-hijab-protest-the-perspective-of-indian-muslims




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