Sunday, Dec 04, 2022

Iran to Udupi, a running thread: Let women choose

Rakhshanda Jalil writes: In India, one has been vehemently opposed to the state stepping in and telling women what they cannot wear and, in the instance of Karnataka, expressly forbidding girls from wearing hijab to school when they clearly wish to.

Protests in Tehran against the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody. She was detained for allegedly wearing her hijab in an “improper” way. (Reuters)

Many years ago, on a visit to Tehran, I had chafed against the mandatory wearing of the head scarf and a long coat-like garment up to my knees; just as I did against the compulsory wearing of a head covering and a full-length abaya on subsequent visits to Saudi Arabia. I believe the wearing, or not wearing of one or both, neither adds nor detracts from my being a Muslim. I know I am one and save for Allah, no one else has the right to judge me and find me wanting in my imaan (belief).

In India, one has been vehemently opposed to the state stepping in and telling women what they cannot wear and, in the instance of Karnataka, expressly forbidding girls from wearing hijab to school when they clearly wish to. Yet, one finds one’s self rejoicing at the defiant hijab burning and applauding the bravery of Iranian women in the face of a brutal, repressive state machinery.

On the face of it, this duality is cause for some disquiet till one reaches the heart of the matter. As a practising Muslim woman who does not wear the hijab and who finds the all-enveloping version of it, such as the chador or burqa, deeply offensive as a tool of segregation and othering, the only way I can, in all honesty, explain my duality is by insisting on that bugbear of all peoples’ protests: the right to freedom of personal choice. Essentially, what is happening in Iran and the reaction of some of us in India to what’s happening in Karnataka are two sides of the same coin. What lies at the heart of both is men telling women what they can, or cannot, wear.

Seeing the protests in Iran as a challenge to religion would be as erroneous as seeing the protests against the banning of hijab in Karnataka as a challenge to the state. I believe both are protests against authoritarianism, toxic masculinity, and deeply ingrained patriarchy. In cutting off their hair or burning their hijab, Iranian women are taking on the might of an authoritarian state that has been telling them for nearly half a century not just to cover their head and wear loose, ill-fitting clothes but precisely how to do so. The Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who allegedly died in police custody, apparently died because she was wearing her head-scarf ‘incorrectly’ and needed to be taken, by force, to a ‘re-education centre’ for lessons in modesty.

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In the nationwide protests that followed, over 30 people have died and hundreds have been injured in a brutal police crackdown across Iran. International observers see this, dubbed as “Iran’s George Floyd moment”, being as much a women’s movement as a civil rights protest insofar as 22-year old Amini’s death has become a tipping point. The scale and extent of these protests, and the courage and defiance needed for public demonstrations in the face of severe suppression, indicate what may have started as protests against women-centric violence have since turned into protests against a decades-old systemic abuse of human rights.

What we have unfolding before our eyes are two scenarios: In Karnataka, a ‘reformist’ or ‘secular’ impulse of a ‘progressive’ state bent upon removing the outward symbols of backwardness from an already beleaguered minority that finds itself pushed into a corner by vigilante mobs. And in Iran, an Islamic republic, bolstered by the might of state apparatus, bent upon enforcing what it considers its version of righteous conduct, especially on women, with all the brutality and power at its command. The impulse behind both is men controlling women.

The mob of boys who heckled and bullied a lone hijab-clad girl in Karnataka were not propelled by a reformist zeal or compassion for an oppressed girl from a minority community who had been ‘brainwashed’ by her ‘regressive’ family; it was muscular majoritarianism at its worst. By the same token, the moral police in Iran, with the poetic-sounding name Gasht-e Ershad, literally meaning ‘guidance patrols’, are certainly not motivated by ‘guidance’.


Both are classic instances of over-reach and a blind, dogged refusal to take into account the concept of choice. The girls in the Udupi school want to wear a hijab. The protesting Iranian women don’t. Shouldn’t it be left to them?

Jalil is a Delhi-based author, translator and literary historian. National Editor Shalini Langer curates the ‘She Said’ column

First published on: 25-09-2022 at 04:15:26 am
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