The allegedly custodial death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini by the moral police of Iran for wearing her hijab inappropriately has created an upheaval around the globe. According to media reports, the protest on the streets of Iran, with women chopping off their hair and burning the hijab as a form of resistance, have unsettled the Iranian theocratic regime. And in a bid to suppress the protest, a fierce crackdown by the authorities has reportedly killed over 200 people.
Going with a rhetorical statement, the Iranian government termed the protest 'a subversive act' and a hostile move by the western powers to create unrest in the Islamic republic. Moreover, the authorities, as of now, have detained dozens of artists, students, activists, and journalists to unsettle the protest.
At the same time, they are asserting threats of severe actions against Iranian celebrities who went against the spiritual ideas of the country by lending their support to the anti-hijab protestors.
How Sustainable Are Global Feminist Movements?
Nevertheless, amid the ongoing crackdown, the feminist movement in Iran for bodily autonomy and against religious dogmas has found vociferous support across the globe. Demonstrations in solidarity with Iranian women’s right to reject the gender norms of dress are taking place in almost 159 cities worldwide.
However, despite getting global attention, the question remains whether this movement will significantly impact other contemporary feminist movements on bodily integrity and self-determination or gain momentum initially but fizzle out with time, under government censorship, thus, turning into another protestation that could not untangle the ever-evolving dialectic of agency and dignity in feminist discourse.
The Lasting Conundrum of Agency
In social science academia, scholars have argued that agency, subjectivity and social structure are intertwined and play an essential part in analysing the social creation of a society.
Here, 'agency' refers to an individual capacity to have resources and power to accomplish their potential. Subjectivity stands for opinion based on an individual’s personal feelings. Furthermore, social structures like identities are functions that ‘others’ construct as per their opinion.
Precisely these ‘others’ are the individuals who occupy a powerful position in society and their gaze and subjectivity locate the subaltern’s agency and dignity.
Thereby, when it comes to gender identity, it’s the male gaze, their subjectivity and their established patriarchal codes of religion and nationalism that spark a female extent of agency and dignity.
The Relativism of Viral Movements
For instance, if we go through the recent female-centric protests in France, India and the USA, we would examine the presence of a dominant patriarchal manifestation that controls women’s agency and dignity. Starting with France-- a proud secular state under the leadership of ideologically ambiguous Emmanuel Macron, passed an amendment in 2021 to ban girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public spaces.
The so-called ‘anti-separatism’ bill had drawn significant backlash across the globe as an attack on women’s agencies with Amnesty International terming the bill "a severe crackdown on the rights and freedom in France." Furthermore, along with the political and societal backing, the movement also received support from many high-profile celebrities with the hashtag #handsoffmyhijab circulated widely on social media.
Patriarchy Remains the Common Template
Although, after the justification given by the French Government that the bill would empower women and is relevant for public safety, the movement suddenly fell flat. It was evident from the sudden fallback in the movement’s popularity that the prejudiced xenophobic male gaze was triumphant in taking away the French Muslim women’s agency of resistance and self-determination while highlighting that subaltern’s dignity could be compromised under the garb of the rhetorical public safety argument.
A similar template with patriarchal manifestation could also be observed in female-centric movements in the USA and India whether we talk about the abortion protest in the USA or Karnataka hijab row in India, they have followed the same trajectory. In the initial phase of the movement, they found global support.
Opinion pieces were written about it as the celebrities tweeted in solidarity, and it seemed like a wave of revolution which would reshape the feminist discourse around the globe. However, the abortion protest due to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia was expunged from the hierarchies of relevant discussions. Whereas the deeply rooted patriarchal Hindu nationalist regime obliterated the hijab row in India by defaming it as a radicalised protest that had a mischievous interest in disturbing the peace of a country.
Thereby, just like France, India and USA ensured that their patriarchal subjectivity and gaze remained more relevant than the fight for women’s bodily autonomy. Moreover, once the women found agencies (like global support) to fight their battle, the government made sure to use more powerful agencies to censor the movement or divert public opinion towards some other nationalist, public safety or religious issue.
Eventually, in a month or year, the hype of a movement fizzled out, and the women who found solidarity from around the world were left to fight a lone battle for their agency and dignity.
How Does the Dialectic Play Out in Women-Led Revolutions?
The clampdown on contemporary feminist movements in France, USA and India has highlighted that in the globalised world in which we live, a women’s movement needs to change in approach to establish an impact on a larger feminist discourse. If the movement did not change its approach, the consequences would be similar. Because government, theocratic or autocratic, under its patriarchal gaze and subjectivity, has more powerful agencies to censor women’s demonstrations. And once the women agencies, especially the global support start to fizzle out under the geo-political pressure, the females of a specific movement and region are left alone to fight for their dignity.
Hence the duty of a progressive society for safeguarding women’s agencies is to start amalgamating all the women-centric protests into a single feminist project so that the movements remain relevant. We cannot view what’s happening in Iran, France, USA and India through a different prism. Women are marginalised; their agencies are taken away; their dignity is compromised under the patriarchal gaze and subjectivity- and thereby, it’s time that a morally conscious society starts talking about these movements in one breadth.
Moreover, it’s the duty of intellectuals, civil society and media houses to subjugate the idealist approach of discussing each movement separately. The more fragmented women’s agency, the more powerful government would be in obliterating the movement.
Thus, examining the women’s fight for bodily integrity in India, the USA, and France is vital while discussing the Iranian anti-hijab protest because by following this accumulative approach, we can broaden the feminist discourse and turn a movement into a revolution.
A revolution for a better future or as it says, ‘Vive la revolution’ – long live the revolution.
(Satkirti Sinha is a PhD research scholar in the Performing Arts department at DMU University, Leicester. His areas of expertise are Folk Culture, Dalit Theology, Performance Politics, Feminist Theory, Post-Colonial Theory, and Sexual Politics. )