Home ›› 26 Sep 2022 ›› Editorial

Women’s freedom, not hijab, is the issue in Iran

Arwa Hussain
26 Sep 2022 00:00:00 | Update: 26 Sep 2022 09:37:59
Women’s freedom, not hijab, is the issue in Iran

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian morality police, Gasht-e-Ershad (Guidance Patrols), for “improper hijab” in Iran has sparked massive protests throughout that country and a heated debate on social media related to the hijab and women’s rights. Here in Montreal, demonstrators have also taken to the streets calling for freedom and justice for Iranian women.

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In Quebec, where the repressive imposition of the hijab by patriarchal religious rulers in countries like Iran has been used by some supporters of Bill 21 to justify the secularism law’s ban on the wearing of the hijab (along with other “religious symbols”) by certain public-sector employees, it seems predicable that Amini’s death will be used to buttress such arguments.

What should be understood, however, is that women taking off and burning their hijabs in Iran is not a denunciation of the hijab but a mode of protest that demands the right of choice that Islam has given to women but has been taken away by the state. Iranian women are demanding the right to freedom and choice by refusing to let the state define what they should or should not wear. Any appropriation of these protests is a misunderstanding of the Iranian condemnation of forced hijab laws that arise from decades of state violence and trauma within a specific context. Their use of slogans such as “Zen, Zindagi, Azadi (Woman, Life, Freedom)” and “Down with the oppressor, whether Shah or a Rehbar” are a condemnation of the state rather than religion. The latter slogan criticizes both, the pre-1979 Pahlavi royal dictatorship in which Reza Shah Pahlavi the ruler of Iran, banned traditional Islamic veils and headscarves in 1936, as well as the post-1979 Islamic Republic which declared the veil mandatory along with a strictly enforced modest dress code.

Muslim women are often in the line of fire amid political struggles, whether those occur in extremist religious regimes like Iran, or from a perceived need to uphold secularism as in Quebec. These are all methods to police women’s bodies in line with the dominant cultural norms and patriarchal structures.

They stem from the assumption that Muslim women lack agency and need to be saved from themselves, which builds on colonial stereotypes of the hijab and the status of women in Islam. Concordia University professor Homa Hoodfar writes that the veil as constructed in colonial imagery and writings became a trope for the oppression of women in Islam, one that curtailed their mobility and independence in society. Thus veiling and unveiling both became tools for controlling women and denied their agency and lived experiences.


Montreal Gazette