In the propagation of the myth of all-round vulnerability of women lies the strength of the Iranian state. It helps perpetuate a dominant male order with control over women’s bodies, their attire, speech and movement. The slightest sign of digression, let alone defiance, as in the case of Mahsa Amini who was arrested by morality police for dress code violation, is considered a challenge to age-old male hegemony. Of course, it helps to cloak such a lopsided gender discourse under the blanket of religion. That has been the way through centuries across civilisations. Men order, women acquiesce.
If in India right-wing politicians are trying to deprive girls the freedom to wear hijab to school, the situation is diametrically different in Iran. The men, through the authority of the state, are seeking to keep women under wraps from head to toe, depriving them of their right to choose. Amini’s crime was to upset the male hegemony, a supremacy so delicate it could be ripped apart with the mere act of improper wearing or casting off hijab.
It is worth recalling that Prophet Muhammed did not even punish those who failed to turn up for Friday prayers. Why penalise a small misdemeanour by a young lady? The Quran through Surah Nur and Ahzaab provides a general guideline about social conduct and clothes permissible to be worn by both the sexes. Unlike the case of adultery, the book talks of no punitive measures for violation of the dress code, leaving it to the discretion of the Almighty. Further, the Quran explicitly forbids compulsion in religion through select verses of Surah Yasin and Kafirun. What is happening in Iran is a case of state trying to play God.
This strictness of the state in imposing dress code through morality police is not a mystery. At a time when Iranian women are beginning to speak up, particularly about gender discrimination in matters of dress code — a woman taken into detention by morality police is provided a lesson in hijab, then released, as a rule only to a male relative — the authorities wanted to make an example out of Amini. The plan to nip defiance in the bud backfired spectacularly. Not many knew Amini beyond her immediate circle when she was alive. With her death, she became a symbol of the new age Muslim woman taking on a regime that has often been oppressive, not infrequently cruel. Amini became a source of inspiration for women who thronged the streets of Iran, raising slogans, casting their hijab off, with one of them shaving her head and making a flag out of her locks. The reaction of the Iranian authorities was harsh, a mix of metal pellets, water cannons and tear gas lobbed at the protestors. It all stemmed from an overweening desire to perpetuate male monopoly of religion.
The oppressive regime
Just as Iran releases women detainees only under the protection of a male family member, for decades, Saudi Arabia did not allow women to drive. Ironically, around the same time, women were quoted the example of Hazrat Khadija, Prophet’s first wife. Khadija was a wealthy businesswoman of the 7th century. So widespread was her business empire that she had hired Muhammed (before he became a Prophet) as her manager. Today’s Muslim women are urged to be like Khadija in sermons by clerics, but often told to stay in the confines of their homes by the same men. If they do speak out, as in Iran, the result is there for all to see. Incidentally, under Iran’s law, hijab was made compulsory for all women in 1983 and its violation attracted a punishment by lashing.
The latest round of repression continues a long series for Iran where the state’s harsh punitive measures have compelled many filmmakers, writers and sportspersons, including men, to seek safer abode abroad. Not many would have forgotten the chequered journey of illustrious filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He was an active revolutionary figure who was imprisoned and tortured before the 1979 Revolution. Later, when he parted ways with the ruling dispensation with films like Marriage of the Blessed and The Cyclist, followed by attendance at a festival in Jerusalem, he was forced to migrate from the country. For all his brilliance, he could not make films in Iran anymore. Forget dissent, even disagreement was frowned upon.
Of course, the ongoing protest by Iranian women has given the West a handle to beat Iran with. In the past, the West has been disdainful towards Iran, and selective in speaking for women’s rights. Its silence on Muslim women’s right to wear hijab and avoidable punitive measures that followed the act in Europe was as wrong as Iran not permitting women the freedom of choice. Not that Indian clerics have been much better. Remember the hue and cry over the length of Sania Mirza’s skirts?
Be it the girls in Karnataka or the women on the streets of Tehran, or those in Paris or Brussels, let women decide. Wearing a hijab or not wearing one should never be construed as a challenge to the state. It is a personal choice that should be unconditionally accepted.