BY FAZZUR RAHMAN SIDDIQUI
NOV 29, 2022 – DAILY SABAH
Demonstrators rally at the National Mall to protest against the Iranian regime following the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police, in Washington, the U.S., Oct. 22, 2022. (AP Photo)
‘No doubt the ongoing protest in Iran poses one of the biggest challenges to the regime in recent years but the larger question remains unresolved if it is an issue of strict cultural practices or the fulfillment of religious duty’
The anti-hijab protest in Iran has already entered its 11th week after it was triggered following the conspicuous death of a 22-year-old young woman, Mahsa Amini, on Sept. 16. The victim was first arrested by Iran’s moral police for not wearing the hijab appropriately and hence accused of violating the standard Islamic code of veiling who, later died. The police source claimed she succumbed to a heart attack while the protestor believes she died due to police torture while in detention.
For the extremist regime of Iran, the hijab is an essential step to rein in the Shah-inspired society and veiling is not only part of the state’s religious identity but also a celebrated code of conduct demonstrated by women. Though the hijab in Iran became mandatory only in 1983, after the abrogation of the 1936 decree that had banned veiling in public spaces. The Iranian regime has also declared July 12 as “National Hijab and Chastity Day.”
The protest first broke out in Tehran and soon spilled over to national peripheries and today many are calling it one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s clerical rule since 1979. Many women reportedly chopped off their hair and burnt their veils in defiance against the forceful imposition of veil culture. The crackdown against the protestors has already caused the death of over 300 people and thousands have been chained by the police on allegations of either being ring leaders or rioters.
This anti-veil movement has not only been tagged by the regime as a United States-led global conspiracy to destabilize the regime, creating deception among women and instigating people against the political philosophy of Iran – a bulwark against the U.S. in the region. There are already ideological and theological divides inside the political sphere of the country and some clerics do not support the stubborn stance of the state while secular factions still ponder if it is a cultural tradition to be preserved or a part of a religious decree to be enforced by the regime.
A similar protest was witnessed in India in January 2022 but it was a complete mirror image of what is being witnessed in Iran. A large-scale protest started against the decision of educational institutions barring females from attending classes in the headscarf and since then the debate around the hijab is raging across the country. Several contradictory voices emerged in some liberal Muslim intelligentsia along with small Muslim political groups and Muslim women’s organizations called it a breach of their religious and cultural rights while the opponent group saw the hijab practice as a manifestation of pursuing separatist and exclusive cultural politics by Muslims. Now the matter has reached the highest court of the land but the issue has already charged the political environment in the country.
Cultural and political domains
However, this situation from two different cultural and political domains concerning the same item offers a glimpse of complexity in the intersection of religion and gender. The issue of adherence to religious or cultural practice and politics around it is largely determined by its historical and political context. The meaning of religious and cultural practices in a majority setting explicitly differs from the notion of religious and cultural norms in a minority setting.
For example, Alkhtraul Wasey, an expert on South Asian Islam and professor emeritus at Central University Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, is of the view that one should distinguish between Western values, Eastern and Islamic values and Islam cannot be defined under the rubric of Western modernity or the rationality parameter. According to him, the hijab is an integral part of Islam and it is not only women in Iran who are not allowed to roam around without a hijab but similarly men cannot come out in shorts, which over the years has become an important part of day-to-day attire. He further says that protests are there but does not subscribe to Western media, which has already written the obituary of the current regime.
In India, the protest in favor of the hijab is more a response to the changing political milieu of the country in the form of identity assertion and it is more a political statement than an expression of one’s religiosity. Niyaz Farooqui, secretary of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the largest and oldest Muslim organization in the country says that no doubt veiling is an essential part of Islam but women’s freedom should be safeguarded at all costs and they can neither be forced to wear the hijab nor they can be coerced to take it off. Like the hijab, the five-time prayer too is also integral to the Islamic faith but if one does not follow, he or she cannot be subjected to moral policing. He argues that the state has every right to intervene in matters like adultery but in no way does non-veiling amount to adultery or ruining one’s chastity.
Since the revolution in Iran, almost every political development in and around Iran is typically not devoid of Western conspiratorial design. Many subscribe to this conspiracy theory while for others, it is handy for the regime in Iran to mollify the unrest and dissuade them to go anti-regime.
Zafarul Islam Khan, editor-in-chief of a widely circulated weekly Milli Gazette, echoing a similar sentiment, sees the hijab protest in Iran as a geopolitical context of the region and for him, this is another reflection of the U.S.’ constant efforts to remove the extremist regime-only obstacle in the accomplishment of U.S.-supported project of “Greater Israel.” He says no country has the right to determine the cultural or religious norms of other another country.
While a prominent filmmaker and prominent voice for women’s rights in India, Ms. Anusha Rizvi has a different take on the issue. She not only supports this protest but considers veiling as a tool for patriarchal domination of women in all societies and it should be fought at all levels.
A sign of backwardness?
The contours of discourse around the hijab are primarily determined by the western notion of freedom and liberty, which see the hijab as an object of oppression and a sign of backwardness. However, professor Akhtarul Wasey is against linking the issue of the hijab with women’s empowerment in Iran and says that the country’s hijab culture never prevented women from joining the market forces of the country and today women are at par with men in every walk of life. Empowerment is not reflected only in the mingling of each other or having unlimited freedom divorced from religiosity or spirituality. He further says that there is no single way of veiling in Iran as some cover their whole body and other covers the head only in fulfillment of religious obligation and the urban-based, middle class comes out with a half-covered head only.
India has a significant number of Shiite Muslims and their clergy have a close association with several prominent seminaries in Iran. They are also inspired by the political ideology of the Tehran regime.
One such prominent clergy is Maulana Kalb-e-Nuri, doctorate in Shiite Theology and runs a chain of educational institutions and other charity organizations. For him, the ongoing protest is a mass anger against inflation and unemployment in the guise of an anti-hijab protest. He also accepts that there is a problem in Iran as the common masses are subjected to severe hardship because of sanctions but, according to him, the majority is still with the regime.
Almost similar views were expressed by professor Mohammad Sohrab, an expert on international politics. He says that whatever is happening in Iran today is a symptomatic expression of the economic discontent faced by the Iranian middle class. But at the same time, he is critical of the trial of Islam by the Western media in the guise of disapproval or rejection of the Islamic veiling system.
No doubt, the ongoing protest in Iran poses one of the biggest challenges to the regime in recent years but the larger question remains unresolved if it is an issue of strict cultural practices or the fulfillment of religious duty. Along with indicating the economic plight of the common masses, the protest can be seen as a reflection of the existing geopolitics of the region and the culmination of all socio-political, ethnic, gender and religious grievances in the country.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Researcher at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a foreign policy think tank based in New Delhi, Ph.D. of Middle Eastern Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University