Of late, opinions regarding the practice of Islamic women wearing hijab have run riot. However, the peak of controversies has been the non-western countries of India and Iran. It has been over forty days since the mysterious death of the Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini while in custody of the morality police in Tehran on September 16, 2022 has sparked widespread protests and demonstrations in Iran.
Mahsa was arrested for wearing ‘inappropriate attire’ that is, a loosely tied hijab headscarf and died three days later while in police custody. People in Iran took to the streets with slogans of ‘Zen, Zindagi, Azadi’ (Women, Life, Freedom) and ‘Down with the oppressor, whether a Shah or a Rehbar’. Amidst the frenzy of women burning down their headscarves and chopping off their locks in protest, the death toll of the protesters has been on the rise ever since.
On the other hand, the apex judiciary of India has been confronting innumerable pleas and petitions and has not yet been able to pass a concrete judgment ever since the Karnataka High Court has justified the ban on Islamic women wearing hijabs inside the classroom. The High Court was of the opinion that wearing hijab was not an essential practice of Islam. Situated in the background of these antithetical demands of women from two parts of the globe, the looming question is: Are women always on the receiving end when at the crossroads of religion and politics?
Amidst the misconstruing of the events as the anti-hijab row and pro-hijab row in Iran and India respectively, women have become embroiled in the politics of religion. India and Iran have different state structures. While Iran functions within the framework of an Islamic theocracy as a presidential system, India is a constitutionally secular country with parliamentary democratic ethos. However, women have been victims of exclusionary politics in both parts of the world. The massive protests of Iranian women are symbolic of their two-fold resistance against religion and state structure. Amini, whose original name was Zhina, was subject to state oppression ever since the day she adopted her official name to be Mahsa since certain Kurdish names were banned in Iran. Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, hijab has been made compulsory for women and the Gasht-e Ershad (Persian for Guidance Patrols) has been tasked with ensuring observance of hijab – mandatory rules requiring women to cover their hair and bodies and discouraging cosmetics, thus denying women their agency. The government draws on parts of the Quran (Islam’s holy book) and the Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) to justify the policy, though Muslim religious writing is not entirely clear on whether women should veil.
In the Indian context too, the sudden ban on hijab in classroom premises is symbolic of state terror and oppression of women on the pretext of religion. The claim by six female students of a government PU college in Udupi that they were not allowed to enter the classroom wearing their hijabs on one fine morning of January 1, 2022 was a new restriction on a new year in a constitutionally secular country. The country was shocked at the judiciary’s assent to this move that denied women access to education on the basis of a piece of clothing. With the rise of Hindutva politics in India over the last decade, the Muslim minority interests have often been trampled by the government, though in guise. The state has intruded into their personal laws time and again in the pretext of deciding upon their essential and non-essential practices. Moreover, Muslim women in India have fallen prey to intersectional discrimination due to the vulnerabilities they face both as Muslims exposed to Islamophobia and as women exposed to patriarchy.
In both the cases mentioned above, hijab- a trivial piece of clothing has been the bone of contention. Hijab is often looked down upon as an oppressive piece of clothing for Muslim women. We cannot deny the presence of oppressive practices against women in Islam. But so has been the case in every religion to a greater or lesser extent. Women have been looked down upon as impure in Hinduism because they menstruate or have been subject to slavery by their husbands in Christianity because it was believed that they lacked autonomous reason. So, it is high time we become conscious of how hijab is only a facade and the underlying objective of both the state and religion is the same – subduing of women. Be it in Iran or in India or elsewhere in the world, the state successfully plays the religion card to deny women their agency. The rights and voices of the women are getting ambushed in the turmoil caused by state and religion. It is saddening how neither Mahsa nor the students of Udupi have yet received the justice they deserve. Their question has only taken a backseat while the world is busy mud-slinging at either the states or the religion or both in turn. We just want to remind the world that William E. Gladstone had once said, ‘Justice Delayed is Justice Denied’.
Preeti Saha, Postgraduate Student, Presidency University, Kolkata