It pains me as a writer to start an analytical piece with the following sentence, but it is true nonetheless: much has been said about what is going on in the past weeks in Iran. The comparison of the lens on Muslim women’s bodies in Iran, France, and India has been made relentlessly as well.
More recently, I have also seen videos, articles, and Instagram posts of the West appropriating the protests and some sections of the left tying the protests back to encouraging anti-Iran sentiments by the CIA.
However, this piece is not about examining the causes of the protests in Iran and India and the sentiment in France or what caused them. It is about taking a closer look at why women are popularly considered incapable of organising and protesting state oppression, despite exhibiting their strength time and again. It also talks about how the act of oppression and the manifestation of the patriarchal mindset differs but yet, therein lies the congruence.
It is also important to add context as to why I decided to write this piece. I lived in Karnataka for the good part of my formative life. I am a Shia Muslim (the majority religion in Iran) and I have also been living in Europe, just across the border from France, for the past year.
Ideally, this would mean that I have a multitude of emotions to portray, but often I find myself saturated and pressured to comment. Being so close to home with the issue, in a personal capacity too, I feel queasy (to say the least) that a fundamental right is always encroached upon when fundamentalism comes into play, the basic right of agency of women over their bodies.
Varying manifestations, a common thread
Starkly different expressions are at play in Iran, France and India (Karnataka) when it comes to Hijab or the headscarf. It is also important to mention that it is a head covering and not a full face veil or a full body outfit – the Burkha. There is no compulsion for a Burkha in the Quran either.
While Iran is on the religious end of the spectrum, France in its secular stance embodies anti-Muslim sentiments. Religious symbols/clothing have been banned in French schools since 2004. There is a constant attack on adult women’s bodies in public spaces as well. While the moral police in Iran are tasked to impose hijabs and proper hijab-wearing, their French counterparts go about their day asking women to get rid of their Burkinis (swimsuits that cover the entire body and the head) and vote to disallow Hijabs in sporting events.
In India or precisely Karnataka, the policing of women’s bodies is tied to the insecurity of a majority religion, and the base remains the same –fundamentalism. At the heart of what was dubbed as the ‘hijab row’ by the media, was the situation in a Udupi college where 6 girls were not allowed to attend class with their hijab.
However, their principal blames “outside forces” for wanting to wear the hijab in school, one he claims is a new demand. This is another example of the patriarchal mindset that women are not capable of making a choice for their own bodies, they must have to have outside encouragement.
The other commonality in these countries is the claim of an apparent threat emanating from the way a Muslim woman chooses to carry herself. While a woman without her hijab or an ‘improper hijab’ is a threat to Islamic values, a woman with a hijab is a threat to France’s idea of euro-centric secular sentiments, and a woman demanding to wear it in school is a threat to the majority religion for no rational reason in India.
Boys were seen wearing saffron shawls as a counter to the hijab and threatening the girls too. The sentiment towards the hijab in schools was politically sensationalised to such an extent in India that a woman in another part of the country was not allowed to access funds from her own account because she came into the bank wearing a hijab or headscarf.
I find that policing Muslim women seems more straightforward because they can “look Muslim”. However, that also brings me to look at it from the chicken and egg problem – is it that they appear overtly Muslim and hence attacked, or was the hijab designed in a way to make women look more Muslim and then oppressed further – in all cases, by men who make laws, execute laws and men who question women in personal spaces?
The male gaze is another aspect connected to the hijab. In the Quran, men are obligated to lower their gaze – that is the male hijab. But there is no measurement for it, is there? Now compare that to the Muslim woman, and it is a physical characteristic visible for criticism. There is less debate on “how Muslim” a man looks compared to what a Muslim woman should look like. That often also signifies how “ideal” she is. This is common in the so-called West as well and ties back to the legend that woman is the root of evil – like Eve who ate the forbidden fruit.
Looking at my personal experience, I have had DMs asking me if I am Muslim and if so, why I do not wear the hijab. It is almost as if there is a male brigade appointed to bring the good Muslim woman back on the righteous path as she is astray.
From the Muslim women I know, I have never heard of them asking their male counterparts whether they lower their gaze, but every Muslim woman I know has received such unsolicited questions about their faith and bodily attributions.
The myth of no agency
A key thread to the happenings is the myth that Muslim women lack agency. The common questions asked are “she needs to be protected“, “maybe she is being forced to wear the hijab”, “maybe she was duped into marrying someone”, and “she is incapable of raising her voice, there is a hidden motive behind it”, and so on.
According to a Reuters report from September 30, at least 83 women have been killed in the protest across the country of Iran since the protest over the death of a Kurdish girl who was arrested by the morality police and faced brutality. Highlighting the typical reaction from states to quell any uprising where women claim agency of what is their own-their bodies.
It may appear that the debate about the situations in Iran, France and India are varied in their policy towards female choice, because they stem from different ideologies. However, fundamentalism is the core, whether it is religious fundamentalism, secular fundamentalism stemming from “non-integration” or the religious fundamentalism of a completely different religion.
The patriarchal thought and suppression of women’s choices and sexuality is the underlying goal. The state machinery works to further this thought, regardless of the base political ideology differences in the countries. Time and again, women have exhibited their choice to either remove the hijab, wear it with aplomb, or protest against the state’s rules to encroach upon their right to their bodies. But the suppression continues.
When I reflect on my lived experiences, I have only scratched the surface here. I had to wrestle with my thoughts to avoid the rants. Writing this also meant organising the various views I had growing up, what I think of them now, and how I was taught to cover my breasts with a dupatta as I was growing up to avoid the male gaze.