After the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who was allegedly physically assaulted by Iran's morality police for wearing her hijab inappropriately, anti-hijab protests have escalated in the country, with women even cutting off their hair.
They are burning their hijabs. And they are doing it all in an expression of protest against the country's morality police, which has since 2005 been in charge of enforcing the hijab and is currently being blamed for the death of Amini.
By publicly criticising the country’s laws on social media and in offline protests, these Iranian women have been risking the possibility of strict penalties, including jail time.
Right on cue, sections of the Indian media and several right wing ideologues on social media have begun comparing the Iranian women's anti-hijab protests with Karnataka's hijab ban controversy.
They question why Indians aren't protesting against the hijab like Iranian women are, and how certain elements in India are instead doing everything they can “for Muslim women to be able to wear the hijab.”
In a six-minute monologue, an anchor at a prominent news channel went on and on about how Islamic nations were denouncing the hijab but people in secular nations like India wanted to make it mandatory.
The anchor quoted Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who represented the Karnataka government in the Supreme Court on the hijab controversy, as saying that "radical outfits," such as the Popular Front of India, had collaborated to make the hijab a divisive political issue – and were forcing Muslim girls in Karnataka to wear it.
A famous columnist and author in a tweet said that Indian women who are demanding the right to wear the hijab should look closely at what’s happening in Iran. However, what the proponents of this perspective fail to realise is the meaning of the word choice.
Let's Talk About Freedom of Choice!
In India, women who want to wear their hijabs are fighting against a system that is forcing them to take the hijabs off. And in Iran, women are battling against a regime that is forcing them to wear the hijab.
What is different between the protests of the women in these two countries is their desired outcome, but what is similar between their agitations is that they are both fighting regimes that seek to control their autonomy and their clothing.
In both the countries, women are craving for the freedom of choice.
In both the countries, the fight is against being forced to dress a certain way. The fight is for freedom.
Iran is an Islamic republic and India a secular one, and it is ironic that the media and the anti-hijab activists are comparing Muslim women from two different countries with different sociopolitical realities, without providing the nuances of the differences in their contexts. During the early years after the revolution of 1979, Iran's rulers forced the hijab and decided to enforce it by beating women who were not wearing veils in public.
Around four decades later, saffron-clad activists harassed and intimidated hijab-clad Muslim students in Karnataka on their way to schools and colleges.
The Karnataka government followed up on the actions of the saffron-clad activists and outlawed hijab-wearing students to enter educational institutions in the state.
In Iran since the 80s and in Karnataka in 2022, the process followed was similar – harassment on the streets coupled with oppression by the law.
Both the pro-hijab and the anti-hijab demonstrations in India and Iran, respectively, show how angry the women are with their governments for their disregard of a woman’s right to choose.
What a Muslim Woman Wants
The hijab means different things to different Muslim women; it sits at a complex intersection of choice, individuality, and religion.
It is incorrect to use the hijab as a weapon to suppress the fundamental rights of Muslim women. Neither should a government jail those who prefer not to wear it, nor should an administration deny an education to those who wish to wear it.
The pretext that all women who wear the hijab do so under duress negates and trivialises the choice of a Muslim woman. And the pretext that all women should be forced to wear the hijab in order to respect their religion does exactly the same.
The death of Mahsa Amini should be condemned – her murderers should be punished, but let's be clear – we should keep fighting to demand that our governments not meddle with choices that affect our personal autonomy, our clothing, and how we practise our faith.
Sections of the Indian commentariat have argued that the hijab is “oppressive,” but they have missed the main point that they are harassing an already vulnerable community by denying them their fundamental rights – both their right to religious freedoms and their right to education.
Fighting Anti-Muslim Prejudice
In the Karnataka hijab issue, one thing is obvious – harassment of minorities due to their religious identity is vital to Hindutva politics. The fight of Muslim women in Karnataka is against the legalisation of such anti-Muslim prejudice, and against the patriarchal attitudes that are being used to enforce the said prejudice.
The fight of the protesting Muslim women in Iran is against a patriarchal setup where they can be assaulted and jailed for what they wear, and against how religion is used as a pretext to enforce such injustices.
Right wing commentators will continue to gleefully pit the protesting women of one country against those of another, but if you, the reader, look closely enough, you will see, as I do, that these protests are remarkably similar in how they counter the injustices imposed upon these women.
Which is why I can proudly stand in solidarity with those who are fighting for their right to wear the hijab in Karnataka, and with those who are fighting to discard it in Iran.
And there is absolutely no contradiction in that.
(This story was first published on 22 September 2022. It has been republished in light of Supreme Court's split verdict in the case challenging the Karnataka High Court's order upholding the Hijab ban in education institutions in the state.)
(Arshi Qureshi is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. She covers stories at the intersection of communalism, human rights, and Indian politics. She tweets @ArshiiQureshi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)