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The Hijab Is Not The Issue Here, Women’s Lack Of Choice Is

‘What if we lived in a world where women weren’t told what they can and can’t wear? Or weren’t killed because of it?’ My friend asks in a post.

Trigger Warning: This speaks of violence against women and may be triggering to survivors.

Women fight for their rights every day. They are suppressed every day too – covertly and overtly. Inciting incidents – like the Delhi 2012 gang rape, Ireland death of Savita Halappanavar, and now, death of Mahsa Amini, to mention just very few – trigger mass protests for women’s safety and rights every now and then too.

Why the Iran protests are significant globally

Yet, there is an undeniable significance of the Iran protests for women all over the world.

Not because it’s a national uprising in an Islamic totalitarian nation (since the revolution in 1979, Iran has been in the throes of a fundamentalist regime which have had human rights violation, suppression of press, and suppression of women’s rights by enforcement of Sharia law).

Not because it is not every day that Islamic women fight against headscarves, hijab, or body covering.

Not because it’s a fight against the practices of a certain religion, as many would like to believe.

It is also not remarkable because of how brutal the suppression is. That is not unexpected and definitely not unprecedented.

It is also not a reinforcement of the evil that is the head covering and therefore, not a validation of certain state actions in India. The Karnataka school uniform vs. hijab controversy should be mentioned in the context of the women protesting head scarves in Iran and getting killed for it, but not because they both have to do with Islam and head covering, or they both have schoolgirls protesting.

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It is incredibly significant because of a few other reasons.

Nation-wide protest by Iran’s women against a tradition imposed by religious beliefs

It’s uncommon for women to fight religious impositions – definitely not at a national level – no matter what the religion. There’s just too much faith, pun intended, preventing that.

Our conditioning and comfort make us believe that most religious practices, even when severely regressive and discriminating against women, are well-intended and harmless. Therefore, there are clustered uprisings – for example, the temple entrance for menstruating women or isolated, individual efforts of not practicing certain practices – but no national mobilization occurs. On the contrary, they might emerge in support of such practices, no matter which religion.

The abortion protection overturn in the US – hasn’t caused yet, a mass uprising. Catholic values, which are put forward as the front for the overturning of abortion rights, have not been dissected or challenged at a national level through mass protests. Faith is a touchy matter, after all, and we often can’t segregate our fundamental rights from our beliefs. Neither are we able to segregate faith from religious pass downs (that’s what I call these interpretations and impositions, mostly designed by men, passed on to women).

Yet, in Iran, women are protesting nationwide and therefore, it is a significant step in the history of feminism.

School children – girls and boys – have joined the protests

Second, school children – girls and boys – are protesting and getting killed for it. It is devastating and heartbreaking to see children getting killed. But it’s also tremendously encouraging for women of all ages to see how the youth is uprising for women’s rights, for freedom, at the risk of losing their lives.

This was seen in the US after the Parkland shooting, for gun control. Seeing this for gender rights is, despite the heart wrench, is inspiring.

A fight for women’s right to choose

Lastly, but most importantly, it is significant because Iran is fighting for a fundamental and universal right – the right to choose. This fight is bigger than Iran, the Islamic Regime, or the head scarf. This is not a fight on clothing, this is a fight for choice.

I have often seen comments on women dressed in western clothes in pre-Taliban Afghanistan and pre-revolution Iran in Western clothes. The commenters assert that dressing in western clothes doesn’t mean freedom. It is not about the dress being western or a hijab – it is the fact that the women could wear what they chose to wear. Women in Iran are fighting oppression – they don’t want to be forced into things. The headscarf is irrelevant – the fact that women are forced to wear it – is relevant.

This is where the Karnataka matter comes in and why it is hypocritical to support women in Iran with solidarity but not to recognize that the schoolgirls in Karnataka were fighting for the same thing. The choice to wear what they wanted to wear. The choice to practice what they grew up practicing.

The problem remains the same whether we force women to wear hijabs, sarees, or short skirts

Women are forced, in every nation, in many ways, to dress and groom around their sexuality. They are often made to believe that this is, indeed, what they want. There was a brilliant article out last week on Riva Arora, and how she is being groomed for the male gaze at the mere age of twelve.

I am not criticizing the solidarity here. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, and as long as we understand what we are standing up for, we women need to stand up for every gender equality fight.

So Urvashi Rautela and others noticing and standing up in support – is a good thing. I am pointing out however that problem is the lack of choice.

A friend of mine, here in the US, pointed out brilliantly how Iran, or rather the matter of hijab enforcement is not too different from the western matter of dress codes in many different sports and art form practices.

‘My daughter used to come cry on my shoulders for all these dress code rules she had to abide by for preforming arts, so that her body looks a certain way, but there was no such rule for boys’ – she says. Angel, my friend, is a single mother who has raised a daughter mostly alone, and a vocal activist for women’s rights.

All of this is catering to the male gaze

Many of us don’t realize this. Of course, the scale and consequences are different in the two matters – especially when state enforcement comes into play. But whether women are forced to cover or forced to conform or forced to uncover – it is all the same in the end.

It is from viewing female existence through and for their sexuality and seeing a woman primarily as a sexual object. Headscarves and other coverings “protect” men from “being triggered” by a woman’s sexuality (of course, its touted as protection for women), and certain ballet dresses and gymnastic costumes are to enhance women (rather girls) as sexual objects.

‘What if we lived in a world where women weren’t told what they can and can’t wear? Or weren’t killed because of it?’ My friend asks in a post. We should stand in solidarity with Iran, and ask that every day, extending the question further, for the school girls in our lives.

Image source: YouTube

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About the Author

Tanushree Ghosh

Tanushree Ghosh (Ph. D., Chemistry, Cornell, NY), is Director at Intel Corp., a social activist, and an author. She is a contributor (past and present) to several popular e-zines incl. The Huffington Post US ( read more...

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