Soumya Swaminathan’s principled protest against Iran’s compulsory headscarf rule is significant

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of India’s top women chess players, Grandmaster Soumya Swaminathan, has pulled out of the upcoming Asian Nations Chess Championship in Hamadan, Iran,to be held from July 25 to August 4, 2018, protestingthe compulsion to wear an Islamic headscarf during the tournament. She contends, and rightly so, that the Iranian law of compulsory headscarf is in direct violation of her basic human rights, including her right to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“I do not wish to be forced to wear a headscarf or burqa. I find the Iranian law of compulsory headscarf to be in direct violation of my basic human rights, including my right to freedom of expression and right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It seems that under the present circumstances, the only way for me to protect my rights is to not go to Iran,” the 29-year-old Swaminathan, who is India’s fifth-best and holds a world ranking of 97 among women, posted on her Facebook account.

“I am very disappointed to see that player’s rights and welfare are given little importance while allotting and/or organising official championships,” she said in her Facebook post, echoing a sentiment that’s still hard to put forward, that too by a sporting talent, for whom it’s easily a risk-laden career move.

There have been instances in the past where female chess players have boycotted playing in Iran in protest against the compulsory hijab/headscarf rule. Yet, inscrutably, a reputed chess tournament, is once again going to be held in Iran. This only shows the scant respect the organisers have to the rights of the participating women players. Being forced to wear a headscarf is not a big deal it seems as per the almost exclusively male-dominated chess federation.

In fact, not just sportswomen, even the Iran visit of the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in April 2016 had sparked a major controversy, also resulting in misogynistic trolling on social media, when she was accused of wearing a “pink potato sack”. While there undoubtedly are many “diplomatic uses” of adhering to dress codes, there are also women like Michelle Obama who refuse to endorse such sartorial prescriptions and walk with their uncovered heads held high.

(Top) Former FLOTUS Michelle Obama with former POTUS Barack Obama in Saudi Arabia | The Telegraph. (Bottom) Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in April 2016 | Real Iran

Moral policing in every thread

Ever since the Islamic “revolution” of 1979, Iranian women are required women to wear the Islamic headscarf in public places. Under Iranian law, women can only show their face, hands and feet in public and are supposed to wear only modest colours. Over the years, women have pushed back the boundaries of the law, with many, particularly in the capital Tehran, wearing loose, brightly coloured headscarves far back on their heads. Women risk fines and even public lashings from the “morality police” if they do not “comply”.

While the right of a man or a woman to wear an attire of their choice must be fully supported, any imposition or a dress code along religious lines is extremely problematic, and a definite assault on the human rights of those not adhering to such systems of belief. Hence, when a Muslim man wears an Islamic beard and/or a skullcap, or when a Muslim woman chooses to wear a niqab, headscarf or the burqa, the choices should be fully supported, and their freedom to wear what they want should be constitutionally protected. However, what must not be tolerated is any imposition of such faith-based prescription on those who do not either subscribe to the concerned faith, or indeed do not agree with such sartorial compulsions even while belonging to the same religion.

Policing of women’s clothes isn’t only limited to Islamic countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, but is equally found among Hindus, particularly in the rural swathes of Rajasthan, Haryana and other states in India, where the practice of “purdah” or “ghoonghat” still persists, and is often romanticised in poetry, Bollywood music and cinema. The oppressive and violative nature of such sartorial apartheid only promotes further segregation of women, who are not allowed outside their homes, denied an education, not allowed to work and made economic, social and cultural dependents, veritable second class citizens with no say in the family, community and personal matters.

The legal spectrum

It’s important to note that the law on sartorial prescriptions vary from country to country, with countries like Iran which enforce a strict faith-based code of public dressing occupying one end of the spectrum, and those like France, which actively prohibit any display of religious or faith in public places, on the other end. Countries like the United States of America, the United Kingdom and of course India, fall somewhere in the middle.

Iran: Travel advice from dependable outlets, such as the UK government’s foreign office website, outlines that “Islamic codes of behaviour and dress are strictly enforced in Iran. In any public place, women must cover their heads with a headscarf, wear trousers (or a floor-length skirt), and a long-sleeved tunic or coat that reaches to mid-thigh or knee. Men should wear long trousers and long-sleeve shirts.”“There are additional dress requirements at certain religious sites. Women may be asked to put on a chador (a garment that covers the whole body except the face) before entering”, it adds. Any failure to adhere to such norms may lead to women (and men) being whipped in public, in addition to other penalties.

France: As mentioned earlier, on the exact opposite end is France, with its law introduced on October 11, 2011, which forbids the wearing of “integral veils” in any public area. The garments included under the rubric of “integral veil” are: anything which covers the face — the niqab, the burqa, cagoules and masks. However, exceptions are made for sporting activities, celebrations, artistic or traditional activities and religious processions.

It’s important to note that the law on sartorial prescriptions vary from country to country, with countries like Iran which enforce a strict faith-based code of public dressing occupying one end of the spectrum, and those like France, which actively prohibits any display of religious or faith in public places on the other end

The law applies to anyone on French territory, be it the mainland or abroad, be they French citizens or not, and that includes Muslim tourists.In practical terms, the law applies to any public area including in the street, public transport (but not private cars), beaches, public gardens and parks, businesses, cafes and restaurants, banks and shops, stations and airports, administrative buildings, including town halls, court buildings, prefectures, hospitals, museums and libraries. A more relaxed approach is adopted in the proximity of places of religious worship. Offenders risk a maximum €150 (or about Rs 15,000) fine and/or the obligation to attend citizenship classes. There are no physical punishments in case the law is breached.

USA: In the United States of America, while state laws vary, they remain far less severe. From no proactive ban on nudity, to ban on breastfeeding, there’s no central law to abide by.“Indecent exposure” and “lewd conduct”remain illegal and their definition is based on case law.

UK: In the United Kingdom, in general, nudity is not an explicit offence, but there are various offences that may apply to nudity in certain “unsuitable circumstances”. What constitutes unsuitable circumstances varies according to the jurisdiction, but nudity is legal in a much wider range of circumstances than many people assume.

India: For a multi-religious democratic country like India, no dress code is legally prescribed for public place. “Obscenity”, though, is not permissible. However, what constitutes obscenity is very subjective, depending upon case to case. There are many who think the obscenity, which falls under the reasonable restrictions to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, is an obsolete idea that must be done away with.

In India, moral policing is less legal, more social

A visit to the Kashmir valley (India’s only Muslim majority state) often shows women, young and old, mostly attired in niqabs, hijabs or burqas. Yet many young girls, once they step outside the State of Jammu and Kashmir, start sporting jeans and T-shirts, skirts and dresses, colourful salwar kameez, much like any other teenage or young girl in the city. Doesn’t that show how primary socialisation makes our “choices” for us? Do the girls stop being devout Muslims when they leave the burqa, niqaab or hijab behind and step out with their faces and/or heads uncovered? Do they stop being Muslims when they leave the Valley? Of course not. Exactly when are they really exercising their “free choice”? In the Valley, or in metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or Pune?

The same logic applies to Hindu women who face strict religious and ritualistic codes of public dressing in their homes in rural swathes of Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and other states which feature high on the scale of gender inequalities, including figuring at the top when it comes to female foeticide. While many still find their mothers and grandmothers observing ghoonghat in their rural homes, irrespective of the economic condition, the younger generation, once it leaves behind the shackles of feudal family set-ups and comes to the big cities and university towns to study, the women embrace freer clothing choices and mingle easily among others.

The same logic applies to Hindu women who face strict religious and ritualistic codes of public dressing in their homes in rural swathes of Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and other states which feature high in the scale of gender inequalities, including figuring at the top when it comes to female foeticide

Of course, one may argue that even in big cities, the “choice” is rather limited, given the reverse-stigmatisation of what’s perceived as “oppressive clothing” for women. Do the young women sports jeans and T-shirt to escape being branded as “regressive”? To not face social ostracisation, because of peer pressure? That might well be the case, though the fact remains that women — Hindus, Muslims, and even devout Catholics who choose not to wear their religion on their sleeves in big cities — at the very least, have the option of exploring more when it comes to their personal/individual freedoms once they step outside of their family/community set-ups.

Growing assault on civil liberties

Increasingly in India, what we wear, eat, drink, read, see, speak or think is everyone’s business, except the individual concerned. In the Western democratic nations, individual civil liberties are placed at the highest pedestal, and rightly so. The power of the state or the society or religion to interfere in a woman’s choice is severely restricted. (The only exception is France, as mentioned earlier, with its own brand of “secularism” that prohibits public exhibition of religious symbols, including integrated veils, thereby robbing those Muslim women who want to sport the headscarf/niqab, hijab and/or burqa in public from doing so. But it extends the same rule to everyone else irrespective of their religion/faith.) On the other side of the spectrum are the Islamic nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where female liberties have to strictly conform and unquestioningly give way, in case of a conflict, to religion and society.

Countries like India are in the middle of that spectrum. We continue to oscillate between entrenched practices of the West democracies and West Asian theocracies. Especially now, under the aegis of an openly Hindutva advocating government, the basic civil liberties have come under attack, especially for those belonging to minority communities in India.

Can I watch a movie? A play? Read a book? Eat what I want? Wear what I wish to? Live with the partner of my choice? Of a gender of my choice? Marry the person of my choice? — without the state or society imposing its will on me?

Even though Western democracies too are currently facing a majoritarian backlash, still, on a scale of 1 to 10 for individual, civil and personal liberties, if countries like Canada, the UK, Germany and other European countries, the Scandinavian countries, Australia, etc., get 9/10, thencountries like Saudi Arabia and Iran get no more than 1 or 2/10. While India probably hovers at 3.5 to 4, the USA perhaps gets close to a 6 or 7, and Pakistan remains at 2.5 to 3, or so.

The scale of civil liberties enjoyed in India is closer to Pakistan rather than say the Swiss or the Canadians. This is because as a nation we still attach more importance to caste, religion, language, ethnicity, provinciality and other parochial sentiments over individual civil liberties.

How dare you eat beef? Don’t you know cow is holy in our religion? How dare you drive your car on the road? Don’t you know there is a religious procession going on? How dare you marry outside your gotra/caste/religion? How dare you dress up in a jeans and a top? Don’t you know it is going to tempt me to rape you? How dare you make a movie on my favourite historical personality? How can you write a book criticising him/her? And so on and so forth.

We are ready to ostracise, shame, expel, injure and even kill people whom we do not agree with for their individual life choices.

Therefore, I think Soumya Swaminathan’s principled stand and rejection to play in Hamadan, Iran should not be viewed in isolation as an individual decision made by a chess player. It has far greater and deeper ramifications for us. While we applaud her stand and courage, it should provoke us into thinking, into critically evaluating the role of State and Religion in our civil liberties, the relentless assault our freedom has had to face and will continue to face in future.  There are deep-rooted maladies to which we have accepted as de rigueur. It no longer grabs our eyeballs, let alone torment our soul. It is time to wake up and extend our wholehearted support to Swaminathan. It is time to check-mate those who want to incarcerate women in sartorial prisons, religion notwithstanding.

[Editor’s note: The views expressed are the author’s alone and do necessarily not reflect that of The Leaflet.]