‘One day the hijab will no longer be compulsory in Iran, this is part of progress and development’ – Parvaneh Salashouri, reformist lawmaker, women’s faction in Iranian Parliament, 2018
‘The hijab in the Quran is for women’s protection but what we’ve done is holding the hijab over women like a club’ – former President Hassan Rouhani, moderate cleric, January 2019.
‘I said during the 2005 elections that I oppose the forced hijab and I repeated it 50 times’. – Former President Ahmadinejad
The death, rather the custodial murder of 22 year old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the dreaded ‘moral guidance police’, has once again brought the issue of the ‘Hijab Mandate’ to the forefront of Iranian society. Whilst the government continues to insist that Mahsa’s death was due to natural causes and not caused due to the brutal treatment meted out by the police, her family does not trust the official version and are clearly blaming the ‘immoral and ill-guided police’ for her death.
A veritable Mass Civil-Disobedience movement has broken out across Iran with brave young women coming out onto the streets, posting selfies and videos online, removing their hijabs in defiance and burning them in bonfires. Here it was heartwarming and encouraging to see that men were participating in equal numbers, clearly affirming that they stood with their sisters, wives and mothers, who now refuse to submit to the coercion of a patently unjust ill-guided law. They also refuse to submit to the baton wielding ‘Gasht-e-Ershad’ or the ‘Guidance Patrol’, now being blamed for the custodial murder of Mahsa Amini. This moral police that patrols the streets on motorbikes and vans, to check if the Hijab law is being complied with have known to beat up women with even strands of their hair showing, which was the case with Mahsa. The anger led to the suspension of Colonel Ahmed Mirzaei, the head of the moral police for the Greater Tehran region, but clearly that has not quelled the anger.
Iranian society has rebelled against the coercive secularization under the Shah, who passed laws banning the Hijab in his attempt to Westernise, as had Ataturk earlier in Turkey. This was also one of the reasons for the uprising against the Shah, when women donned the Hijab in defiance of Shah’s draconian rule. Then under the Khomeini-led Islamic revolution that overthrew the unpopular and dictatorial US-backed Shah, the women were praised for their role – but now the Hijab was imposed by law. Yes, a referendum was held on the hijab mandate issue, but in hindsight has clearly proved to be a grave error, as it’s patently unjust and inhuman. The Shah and Khomeini, as well as subsequent governments failed to see the issue here – the issue of CHOICE. Now the compulsion and the imposition of the Hijab, is being equated to the overt and coercive Islamisation of Iranian society. Here Iranians, one of the oldest and most advanced civilisations of the world, clearly are demanding a balance between the Islamic and the Secular and are now protesting on the streets in their hundreds of thousands, if not more.
The Hijab in India is promoted by Muslim conservatives as a matter of choice, though they too would be inclined to enforce a mandate if conditions permitted. But then again, what choice does a 5 year old girl have when her parents make her wear the hijab? Also young women in Muslim majority areas, or rather ghettos wear the hijab due to social pressure. Yet again the overwhelming burden of maintaining the moral upkeep of society is thrust on the shoulders of women, so as to ensure that men do not get swayed with lust. Thus the issue of whether it’s a simple matter of choice, or then the pressure of social conditioning and patriarchy is also a moot point.
In relevance to the ongoing debate in India and many countries of the world, particularly in the West, where the issue of the hijab, multi-culturalism, secularization, Islamisation and Islamophobia are all being debated, we must consider the ongoing protests and debates in Iran with the utmost seriousness. We are oft told that the issue of the Hijab is sacrosanct, is essential to Islam and not up for debate.But is the issue of the hijab one in which there is an agreement within the ruling conservative Islamic establishment? – Certainly not! Consider the following statements made by certain leading Iranian leaders.
President Ahmadinejad, a known conservative and popular amongst the rural and urban working classes where support for the hijab is far more prevalent, stated the following during a televised debate in 2005 – ‘Is the appearance of our children’s hair really a problem facing our people today? Let them make their hair however they want, what business is to you or me and you? We have to take care of the country’s fundamental problems’.
As recently as July 2022, Mehdi Karroubi a former presidential candidate, senior cleric and speaker of parliament stated – ‘Hijab is one of the essential rules of Islam, but can all the rules of Islam be implemented by force? We have no such thing as imposition, so I am personally against the mandatory hijab. When the hijab became mandatory after the revolution, it was the wrong thing to do. It was a political decision and a bad one’.
As ‘Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy’, an organisation that this author is one of the founders, we have continued to affirm that ‘the hijab is not essential to Islam’ and certainly cannot be mandated and imposed by law. The oft-repeated statement that ‘there is no compulsion in Islam’ is conveniently forgotten by Islamic conservatives and right-wingers here in India as well, when it comes to gender equality, the hijab in particular and the right to choose.
Consider too the following remarkable statement issued by twenty-one prominent Iranian political and civil rights activists on August 2, 2022, calling the policy of the mandatory hijab ‘a mistake’. It was signed by Zahra Rahnavard, Faezeh Hashmi Rafsanjani, Mostafa Tadzdeh, Ahmad Montazeri, all leading and powerful ruling class figures who stated – ‘Mandatory hijab was a wrong decision from the beginning and the passage of time has made it obvious. Although there are serious theological differences as to whether the hijab is necessary or not, and to what extent women should cover their hair, there’s no dispute about the fact that imposing the hijab does not have a defensible legal basis in sharia law’.
Astounding statement indeed!
There was a need to bring forth these positions which rarely if at all feature in the media coverage, as the protesters are being targeted as anti-Islam and anti-Iran, anti-National This is the normal diatribe resorted to by the ruling clique and their supporters and as Indian human rights activists, we know it all too well.
Cleary the hijab mandate was a grave error on the part of the leadership of the Islamic revolution and vast sections of Iranian society now want this mandate to end. In fact Mehdi Nasri, former editor of the ultra-conservative Kayhan newspaper, in 2020 stated that – ‘Statistics show 70 percent of people do not observe the Islamic hijab and do not accept the obligation to wear hijab’.
The protests are being maligned as another West-backed Colour Revolution for Regime Change and there could be an element of infiltration, but that is not the dominant story or the reality here. The fact of the matter lies that the Iranian Islamic establishment will have to heed the voice of the people, and undertake progressive democratic reforms.
As a tribute to Mahsa Amini and all the women who have been jailed and brutalized for their courageous defiance and dissent, Iran must end the unjust hijab mandate.
Feroze Mithiborwala is a social activist