When Iran’s morality police arrested 22-year-old Mahsa (Zhina) Amini for not “properly” wearing her hijab, it was just another day’s work in the Islamic Republic. Dozens of women are taken into custody almost daily for what the Iranian state deems dress code violations. The hijab, the Islamic headscarf, is mandatory in Iran, though some see this rule as “relaxed,” since sometimes part of women’s hair shows.
At some point during Amini’s detention, the young Kurdish woman was tortured. One day later, she was pronounced dead. Little did the authorities know Amini’s fate would spark a unique protest that spread from her home province of Kurdistan to most of Iran’s major cities, including the capital. The participation of women from all walks of Iranian life, and the symbolism of removing the hijab and then burning it — not outside some Islamic center in Europe, but in Tehran, Qom, Isfahan and other large Iranian cities — is unprecedented. At the time of writing, protesters have been confronting armed security forces for over 10 days and counting. In some spaces, women have been seen dancing, celebrating the few moments of fleeting freedom with cheering and encouragement from men. At least 54 civilians have been killed, including a significant number of women. Footage from the protests has spready quickly through both traditional and social media, with an emphasis on hijab removal and burning. The scenes were reminiscent of the viral images in 2017 of Syrian women who removed their veils and set them ablaze after fleeing the Islamic State group. The reactions, too, have been similar: a mix of awe, hope, hesitation and whataboutism.
Though the veiling and unveiling of Iranian women is a domestic issue, rooted in decades of activism against polarizing patriarchies, the hijab itself is a collective issue for Muslims globally. It splinters along ideological, religious, social and political lines, often involving non-Muslims too. A choice vs. an obligation; a clothing item vs. a symbol of oppression; a religious identity vs. a political statement — the controversial fabric is, in fact, all the above and a bit more. The hijab remains compulsory by law in Iran and Afghanistan. In Saudi Arabia, the traditional abaya, an open gown worn over clothes, was mandatory for women until recently. But legislation alone does not convey the entire story.
In many other parts of the world where the hijab is not legally mandated by the authorities, it is nonetheless subject to social norms, as I experienced personally growing up in Iraq. I still recall two extremely stressful days in this regard. The first was after returning to school following Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. I had to face my classmates’ and teachers’ disappointment in me for removing the hijab I had temporarily worn out of respect for the holy month of fasting. I bore their disapproval and stuck to my choice. I did not feel the hijab represented me, so I did not wear it.
In college, the social pressure became worse, not only from peers but even some of my instructors. I was often excluded from social gatherings and parties, and continued to face passive-aggressive commentary about my “sinful” and scandalous showing of my hair. I was scorned by more than a few of my classmates, male and female. “You don’t look Muslim at all. You lack Muhammad’s illumination,” was one comment that has stuck with me for its cruelty, as it was an indirect way of telling me I was cursed. In a way I was, at least in that context, because I ended up enduring something no one should endure, and it succeeded in bending my will.
In my junior year of university, I was one of two out of approximately 300 students in our entire college who still resisted wearing the hijab. The other was a senior in a different department whose mother was English. Up until one day in 2004, I had tolerated the comments, verbal abuse and shaming. I did so bravely, if you ask me, but “brazenly,” if you were to ask many of my former classmates.
One day, while walking home, I felt a blow to my head by an object that could have been a heavy book. I heard cursing afterward, demanding I cover my head. “You slut!” shouted my attacker. He was a young man wearing an abaya. I never saw his face, but determined he was of college age from his tone of voice and speed of walking. Iraq had no official morality police, but the entitled righteousness of my assailant was commonplace. And so, after Ramadan that year, I caved to the social pressure and wore a hijab. It was the only way I knew how to protect myself in that context.
So, what is a hijab? In its earlier form, a hijab is a cloth placed on a woman’s head to cover the top of her hair or all of the head except the face (sometimes including the face). The origins of the hijab are still debated to this day, but most historians and researchers agree that, throughout history, women of different statuses have worn some variation of the hijab. In ancient Mesopotamia, the hijab was worn exclusively by women of high status. Slaves and “unchaste” women were prohibited from covering their heads or faces. Biblical verses portray the earliest Semitic women in veils, symbolizing virtue and status. In the era immediately preceding Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, the veil was worn more liberally, exposing the neck and ears, and would slide down the sides of the shoulders. For all the hijab’s varieties, there was always one thing in common: it was a socially-imposed construct targeting only women. Still, there is little evidence this construct was forced upon women, with punishments for those who did not comply. Men would also — optionally — cover their hair or faces while working in fields or traveling through the deserts, for purposes of protection unrelated to gender.
After Islam, the hijab adopted a different meaning and function. The old status conventions were eliminated and all women were obliged to completely cover all their hair, neck and ears. Tied to the hijab verse in the Quran was a demand to dress modestly, with an emphasis on concealing the bosom. The hijab became associated with modesty and acquired the function of privatizing sexuality by hiding a woman’s physical appeal to “foreign” men outside her immediate family and spouse. Awareness of this explicit function is key to understanding the debate around the hijab and its purpose.
The Islamic context begs the question of the other key part of the hijab discussion: Is it a choice? The hijab falls into the category of obligatory “dos.” In Islamic jurisprudence, what the Quran has explicitly stated to avoid, or “do not,” is automatically prohibited and considered a sin. What God has demanded must be followed, and failure to comply constitutes a sin. However, not all sins are equal. Some, like stealing or adultery, require a physical — or earthly — punishment, while others do not. “Incorrect” hijab-wearing and “immodest” dress in general fall into the latter category. While Islamic jurisprudence and fatwas oblige all Muslim women to wear a hijab for the purpose of modesty and concealing sexual appeal, and the Quran also mandates that no skin beyond the face and hands be revealed, failure to follow these requirements to the letter is not an unforgiveable or cardinal sin, according to the Quran itself. Other components of Islamic jurisprudence, such as the Prophet Muhammad’s narrations (Hadiths) and the deliberations of his companions following his death, take a tougher stance on the hijab, modesty and women’s behavior overall. Certain Hadiths hold that immodesty warrants an eternity of hellfire, often narrated in that all-too-familiar intimidating patriarchal tone. Such narrations, however, remain limited in number and are evidently not intimidating enough to convince all Muslim women that the hijab is a religious and moral commitment to which they must unquestionably adhere.
As Islam spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula, different cultures (and subcultures within cultures) added their own esthetics to the hijab, preventing the emergence of a uniform head cover across the entirety of the Muslim world. In the 20th century, religious authorities in Muslim countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia defined the “proper” hijab as one without a distinctive color or pattern, made from plain cloth that did not attract attention. Most hijab-wearing women did not comply. Toward the second half of the last century, with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, certain narratives emerged in the Muslim world that told of the terrible post-mortem fates of women who chose not to wear the hijab. The stories, reminiscent of Dante’s “Inferno” or the “torture of the grave” tales that used to be taught to schoolchildren in Saudi Arabia, aimed to coerce young women into covering their heads.
One of the more fantastical examples told by the pious at social gatherings goes as follows. (I first heard it from a physician in Iraq during a funeral service, at which she also served as an informal preacher.) A 16-year-old non-hijabi suddenly passed away, the story went. After the burial, her family needed to dig up her grave, for some strange reason that is never clarified. After they did so, they discovered her corpse had been burned beyond recognition, her jaw locked wide open as though frozen in terror. Despite its cheap horror-film quality, the story worked on at least some of the preteen girls in attendance. On an “ends justify the means” basis, many Islamists see these stories as permissible “white lies.” The more women resisted the hijab, the more bizarre these scarecrow tales became, and the more obsessed the religious patriarchy grew. Indeed, modern clerics and preachers have devoted so much time and effort to promoting the hijab that it has become one of the most pressing topics of discussion in the Muslim world, surpassing even the relevance of prayer, zakat (alms-giving) and pilgrimage. In many conservative communities where the authorities do not mandate the hijab, it is the social norms that make it obligatory. Defiance of the norms subjects women to immense pressure, including the risk of exclusion from social circles and, in more extreme cases like mine, physical violence. A non-hijabi in such communities is deemed unworthy of respect, risks losing opportunities to marry, and is often sexualized and blamed for her own discomfort. Men, on the other hand, never face any of this, and the explanation behind this double standard is unapologetic. Sure, Islam views “men and women equally,” but “men and women are different,” goes the conventional wisdom. Like the old adage of Eve as the root of all sin, this translates to women having to shoulder almost all the responsibility for male “deviation.” Eve is a corrupter and seductress, so her daughters had better cover up and hide themselves. And that is how the patriarchy uses the hijab to control women, exploiting both religion and social laws that are inherited, patriarchal and often unwritten.
In the West, the public conversation about the hijab gradually began to revolve around identity. As second-generation immigrants of Muslim families came of age in significant numbers, more women opted to wear the hijab to indicate they were Muslim. In the United States, Britain and other Western countries, the dress code and way of life for Muslim women differ drastically from those of women living in Muslim-majority countries. In the West, the idea of curtailing women’s physical movement and personal liberties is unthinkable, and (save for France and a couple of other places) these personal liberties extend to whether a woman chooses to wear a hijab.
Indeed, the geographical disparities in the role played by the hijab have become more evident in the age of the internet and social media, a phenomenon that I think remains understudied and overlooked. For American and European Muslim women, for example, the hijab has become a source of pride among a minority group. This identity may accompany a religious aspect, but will often surpass it in priority. As already mentioned, the core function of the hijab, according to Islamic texts and traditions, is to conceal a woman’s sex appeal. Yet it is common for Western Muslims who wear a hijab to adopt progressive political causes, such as LGBTQ rights, celebrating the hijab as a symbol of inclusion and diversity.
Muslim women in more conservative settings are not allowed these options and face immense pressure if they defend them. In such contexts, to protest mandatory hijab laws brutally enforced by the authorities is perfectly understandable, even when juxtaposed with the cautiousness among some Muslims in the West who see these protests as an attack on the hijab itself and on their own personal choice to wear it. When ex-Muslims attack Islam as a whole, and Islamophobes and the far-right oblige them by cheering the torching of the hijab without acknowledging context, it is no surprise that many Muslims in the West feel wary.
The hijab has been — and continues to be — used as a tool of oppression in too many Muslim-majority states. But the burning of the hijab in Iran does not align with what the ex-Muslims and Islamophobes claim. It is not necessarily at an attack on Islam or religion at large. It is of course impossible to know what each protester believes in their heart, but I think it is fair to say that removing the compulsory head cover and setting it alight is first and foremost a rejection of the forced laws, oppression and brutality imposed upon the Iranian people by the Islamic Republic, including the state-sanctioned criminality that killed an innocent and defenseless young woman for showing a bit of her hair.
Among the earliest reactions to the relatively significant international support Iran’s protestors have received came from Muslim activists in the U.S. and Europe. They suggested that much of the support for Iranians was “hypocritical;” that it was not about freedom or liberty because, they claimed, hardly anyone has come to the support of Muslim women living in France or Canada who want to wear the hijab but cannot do so in many public spaces. This is a false argument, I find. Certainly, the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the West is a concerning sign of the decay of liberalism. But if we must compare these very different contexts, then I would note that, with the exception of India, where Muslim women (and men) today are subjected to state-sponsored violence, the oppression against the hijab in non-Muslim-majority countries does not come close to the oppression faced by women in Muslim countries, where death and imprisonment by the authorities are all-too-common occurrences. To acknowledge this reality is not to detract from the legitimate concerns of Muslims living in non-Muslim-majority countries. Protecting and championing the lives and liberty of women is not a zero-sum game, nor should women’s lives be the currency of political point-scoring.