It is difficult to predict the direction of the two day-old “hijab” protest in Iran against the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by the country’s “morality police” for allegedly violating the strict headscarf rule. Women have been posting pictures of themselves burning their headscarves and cutting off their hair to express their anger. Iran’s authoritarian rulers have managed to keep the rule in place since the theocratic revolution in 1979, but over the decades, as the black headscarf came to symbolise the repression of many personal freedoms and civil rights of women as well as men, it has been inspiring to see Iranian women refusing to be cowed down, refusing to be “victims”. They have been at the forefront, challenging and pushing back at the restrictions at every opportunity.
This year, on July 12, designated by the regime as the National Day of Hijab and Chastity, women across Iran took off their headscarves in an act of rebellion and protest. An overall atmosphere of civil society discontent over the economy and other issues has also seen an increase in the number of individual acts of rebellions against the dress code. The response of the policing authorities has ranged from a ticking off to arrests, but of late, there have been signs of more severe crackdowns. Last month, the Minister for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice said the government would use face recognition technology to track down such protestors. The regime’s determination to stamp out these protests with surveillance technology shows the high levels of insecurity among those who rule Iran vis a vis their own citizens — labelling the hijab burners as participants in a “Western conspiracy” has been easier than to address the demands of the women.
What is also clear from the Iranian protest is that the hijab has taken on different meanings in different countries across the Islamic world and in other countries with significant Muslim populations. While Iranian women have been protesting this item of clothing for years, in Turkey, for instance, it was the opposite. In 2013, the Erdogan government lifted a decades-long ban on wearing the headscarf in public spaces as a reaction to what many had started viewing as a denial by the previous military regime of their right to practise religion. The headscarf became a powerful symbol of political assertion by religious conservatives, but it was also welcomed by liberal activists and civil rights defenders as restoring individual choice at long last. Context is everything, but the bottom line is this: When a powerful state gets into citizens’ wardrobes, there is usually a reaction from those who are affected. There are some valuable lessons here for India to learn.