Both Iran’s hijab law and Karnataka ban oppress Muslim women

Women should ultimately decide if they want to wear the hijab or not.

——

HIJAB means barrier or partition in Arabic. However, the word is increasingly being associated with women not having agency over their bodies.

Hijab became mandatory in Iran after the Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini-led Islamic Revolution in 1979 toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had banned the use of the head covering. Khomeini’s government deployed the Gasht-e-Ershad, or the morality police, to ensure that women always donned the hijab when outside. Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code jails women who do not wear it for 10 days to two months.

More than four decades later, Iranian women, supported by men, are vehemently protesting the killing of Mahsa Amini (22) by the morality police for not wearing the hijab. More than 400 Iranians have died while fighting the Basij paramilitary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The lopsided nature of the application of such regressive laws has led to Iranians burning hijabs as a mark of protest against Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei’s rule.

The ban on hijab by the Karnataka government and upheld by the High Court (HC) has resulted in 17,000 girls missing exams. According to a new report, 16% of Muslim girls from Mangalore University dropped out this year.

Almost 3,000 km away from Iran, Muslim girls in Karnataka, India, are fighting for the right to wear hijab in educational institutes. The ban on hijab by the Karnataka government and upheld by the High Court (HC) has resulted in 17,000 girls missing exams. According to a new report, 16% of Muslim girls from Mangalore University dropped out this year.

In Karnataka, a vast majority of Muslim students were not allowed entry into educational institutes if they wore hijabs, triggering a debate about whether the piece of clothing is an essential religious practice or can the judiciary declare doing away with it.

Also read: Why Karnataka HC’s Hijab judgment merits a Constitutional challenge and scrutiny

A myopic perspective of the situation might see women in Iran and Karnataka fighting for different rights but a feminist point of view would perceive it as a fight against oppression and for religious and bodily autonomy.

Women have embraced hijab for a variety of reasons, including expressing their identity in France or resisting neo-imperialism in Iran. By limiting the hijab to only being an instrument of oppression and failing to consider its true contextual meaning, we ignore the reasons why women choose to wear it.

Hijab-wearing women are reduced to being victims of patriarchy regardless of why they wear it. The hijab is seen as a battle between the oppressor (men) and the oppressed  (women). This narrow dichotomy denies women their agency and forces them to see the world through a lens where they are at the losing end.

Therefore, while the claim that the hijab is a symbol of patriarchy may have some merit, it is not always true. Not all women who wear the hijab are oppressed—and making such broad generalisations is wrong. In light of the Karnataka HC ruling, there has been a general tendency to ‘protect’ all hijab-wearing women without first determining whether they need such protection.

Therefore, while the claim that the hijab is a symbol of patriarchy may have some merit, it is not always true. Not all women who wear the hijab are oppressed

Moreover, an attempt to end the supposed oppression of Muslim women by restricting their freedom of choice and expression is like two wrongs making one right. The HC decision was based on ensuring consistency in college attire. The rationale created a disproportionate result that deprives Muslim women of education as evidenced by an increase in their dropout rates.

Also read: Hijab row shows why we should see Muslim women’s rights through the dual lens of religion and gender

Uniformity cannot take precedence over the right to education. Such judgements project the idea that what a woman wears in any setting is up for discussion in the public domain and her choices can be regulated by organs of state—hence, associating negligible value to a woman’s autonomy.

In a world where Muslim women in hijab already experience discrimination, Iran’s law requiring them to wear the veil or the HC verdict has an impact on more than just women of their respective jurisdictions.

For instance, following Amini’s death, the draconian law strengthened the claim that women who wear veils are often oppressed. The hijab will, therefore, be perceived in a certain way by people, further alienating women who wear it from society.

Iranian women are required by law to cover their heads and wear loose clothing that conceal their body contours and protect their chastity. The legislation is irrational because it attempts to prevent women from being objectified and sexualised while implicitly sexualising their bodies by asking them to cover up.

In Iran, the government deployed the morality police and penalise women for not conforming to the dress code. In India, the Karnataka HC’s ruling resulted in girls dropping out of educational institutes and deprived them of the right to education.

Viewing the hijab as a tool of oppression is a very valid assumption for someone not belonging to the oppressed group. But for such oppressed women, more than anything, it becomes an access to education. It might or might not be an essential religious practice but it has become a quintessential in the eyes of society over a period of time. Some households allow their girls to avail education on the precondition that they would wear the hijab.

Banning the hijab in educational institutes does more harm than good as in order to free such women from oppression, it inflicts more oppression in different shapes and forms.

In both the narratives, women should ultimately decide if they want to wear the hijab or not. A religious symbol should not be forced upon a person in a way—like in the case of Amini—that might even lead to their death. Religious dogmas should not supersede the most basic human rights.

On the other hand, laws should also be accommodating.

For instance, Sikh men in India are allowed to wear turbans in educational institutes as a part of their religious identity. The government even exempts them from certain road traffic rules like wearing helmets which are otherwise mandatory for everyone else. But Muslim women are not allowed similar freedom.

The deeper problem is the notion that women’s choices can be dictated by men, which is the reinforcement of patriarchy. In Iran, the government deployed the morality police and penalised women for not conforming to the dress code. In India, the Karnataka HC’s ruling resulted in girls dropping out of educational institutes and deprived them of the right to education.

If wearing hijab gives women access to education, they should be allowed to wear it however patriarchal it is. The only solution is education, financial independence and freedom of choice as only educated and independent women can make a free choice.

In both cases, the victims are women. When we engage in such debates that question women’s agency, we make women believe that they are a pawn in the hands of their decision-making patriarchs and a means of objectification and sexual gratification. We limit their identity to their gender and deviate them from pursuing greater goals and having ambition.

Also read: Hijab, skirts and a woman’s quest for choice

Wearing or not wearing the hijab should be a matter of choice solely for women. One might argue that younger women may be forced by their families to wear the hijab, but the government imposing it or courts banning it is even more forceful. We cannot oppress the oppressed further to undo oppression.

If wearing hijab gives women access to education, they should be allowed to wear it however patriarchal it is. The only solution is education, financial independence and freedom of choice as only educated and independent women can make a free choice. It might take time but would give women back agency over their bodies and ultimately lead to their liberation.

The Leaflet