A woman walks with other shoppers at the Grand Bazaar in Iran’s capital Tehran on September 28. Iran’s police have warned that they will confront “with all their might” women-led protests that erupted nearly two weeks ago over the death of Mahsa Amini in custody. Photo: AFP
by Charmaine Carvalho
by Charmaine Carvalho

In Iran, India or France, women’s dress should be women’s choice

  • Those who support both women wanting to wear the hijab and Iranian women throwing off the garment are accused of doublespeak
  • But their position is not paradoxical – they simply support women’s right to choose what to wear
Watching videos of women in Iran taking to the streets, burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in protest against a repressive state, one cannot help but be awed by their courage. The protests were sparked by the death on September 16 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran, after the morality police detained her for allegedly breaching the country’s strict dress code for women.

Amini’s parents insist she was appropriately attired, although that is beside the point. Iran’s president has promised an investigation into Amini’s death, but that did not curb the protests demanding an end to the country’s far-reaching religious restrictions that not only regulate what people can wear but also enforce gender segregation in many public spaces.

The latest demonstrations have spread across the country and now reflect wider public anger with the government, which has begun cracking down on protesters.
The developments in Iran have struck a particular nerve in India, where earlier this year women were barred from classrooms in some government colleges in the state of Karnataka because their hijabs violated the dress code. This month, the Supreme Court heard arguments for a clutch of petitions related to the issue.

In both Iran and India, women’s dress was wielded politically at crucial historical junctures. Political theorist Partha Chatterjee notes that during the Indian independence struggle, when it was deemed necessary for Indian men to venture out into the world of science and modernity, women were tasked with preserving the “spiritual” inner realm.

Students in India’s capital New Delhi hold placards against the ban on hijabs in some schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka on March 24. The country’s Supreme Court has been hearing arguments for petitions related to the issue. Photo: AP
One manifestation of this was women’s dress. Thus, in India, to this day, women of all communities may be criticised – or even killed – for wearing jeans, by men who consider them westernised and immodest but who routinely wear a shirt and trousers themselves.

In Iran, in the 1930s, Reza Shah Pahlavi ordered women to stop wearing the hijab. During the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s against his son who was then the monarch, women took to the streets wearing the hijab, which became a symbol of defiance against westernisation. After the revolution, women were required to wear headscarves and long loose robes in public.

Iranian women demonstrate for equal rights in Tehran on March 12, 1979. Photo: AP

The developments in India and Iran also have resonance in France, which in 2004 banned the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” in schools. Since 2011, the wearing of the niqab, which covers the face except for the eyes, and burka, an all-enveloping cloak, has been formally banned in public places. The French football federation does not allow women to play wearing obvious religious symbols. In March this year, France’s highest court upheld a ban on barristers wearing the hijab and other religious symbols in courtrooms in the north.

Although the welfare of women is the ostensible motivation behind these moves, the surrounding political discourse makes it clear that these are really culture wars, fuelled by fear of “Islamism”.

While the hijab is part of patriarchal culture that tasks women in particular with demonstrating modesty or carrying on tradition – and this warrants interrogation, just as women taking on their husband’s name after marriage or children automatically being assigned their father’s surname calls for reflection – for many Muslim women around the world, the headscarf is simply a customary form of dress. While some girls and women face familial or social pressure to wear the hijab, for others, it is a way to assert their religious identity in a climate in which they feel marginalised.

Prison of gender norms keeps schools from rethinking dress-code rules

Those who have come out in support of women wanting to wear the hijab and who now support Iranian women throwing off the garment are being accused of doublespeak.

However, their position is not paradoxical, but rather simply supports women’s right to choose what to wear, without state intervention. What Iranian women are protesting against is being denied the right to choose what to wear and how to practise their faith. More specifically, it is resistance against state repression.

Governments that insist that women wear the hijab and governments that insist they don’t are two sides of the same coin.

Charmaine Carvalho is a senior production editor at the Post and a member of Lunar, an initiative that highlights key issues related to women and gender equality in Asia