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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > HIJAB: to ban or not to ban

HIJAB: to ban or not to ban

Sumaiya Jawed (MScCCDP13) explores the contrasting stories of the hijab protests in Iran and India and the implications they hold for the ongoing struggle for women's rights.

Hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women to cover their hair and neck, has been a contentious issue in many parts of the world, most recently in India and Iran. In both countries, the hijab has been the subject of numerous protests with women demanding their right to wear the hijab as per their own choice, and the right to be free from coercion if they choose not to wear it. The hijab protests in India and Iran are an expression of women’s desire for equality and freedom of expression.

What Sparked the Iranian Protests?

The recent and shocking death of 22 year old Mahsa Amni under the custody of Iran’s “morality police” in Tehran sparked a nationwide protest against the oppressive and obligatory law that all women in Iran must wear the hijab in public. Mahsa’s death and the subsequent protests went on to generate anger and attention across the globe.

Caption: a video showing pictures of protestors in Iran 

The slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” (زن زندگی آزادی ) was chanted at Mahsa’s funeral  and women removed their hijab as a sign of solidarity. Following her funeral, protests began to spread across the country with thousands of women burning their hijab or cutting off their hair. These protests have been met with a harsh resistance by the morality police with thousands of protesters having been unfairly detained or arrested. To protect themselves, several protesters have had to flee the country. Professional chess player Sara Khedem removed her hijab during a competition in support of the protests has since moved to Spain after an arrest warrant was issued against her back in Iran. Women’s rights protests in Iran are not unprecedented. They are part of a historical legacy that dates back over a hundred years to Iran's Constitutional Revolution.

Iran and India: A contrasting story

Despite the global backlash against Iran’s morality police and laws surrounding the hijab, protests in Iran have been received with confusion in India.  In 2020, a contrasting scenario occurred in India’s state of Karnataka as the government decided to implement a ban on hijabs. This led to young female Muslims suing the government in response as they were unable to wear the hijab in classrooms, causing major disruption to their education.

The Karnataka hijab ban was introduced as a measure to promote secularism and to ensure that all students dress uniformly. The ban has been widely criticised as being discriminatory against Muslim women and girls and an infringement on their right to choose to wear the hijab. Further criticism has stated the ban is a form of religious coercion, forcing women to choose between their religious beliefs and their education. Muslim students who wore hijabs to school were met with great backlash from the majoritarian Hindu-Right groups as they presumed the headscarf to be oppressive and unacceptable in a Hindu majority country.

 Interestingly, this same group of Hindu-Right citizens appear to be supporting  women’s rights in Tehran and are using this uprising as an opportunity to mock protests from Muslim Indian women who are fighting for their right to wear the hijab.

Why is there so much debate about the Hijab?

It cannot be ignored that the Hijab protests in both India and Iran have geopolitical implications. The current climate demonstrates the complexity of the intersections between religion and gender and the comparison between western notions of liberty and the religious notion of modesty. To any authoritarian state, the purpose of a hijab is inconsequential. It is the assertion of identity via the hijab that attracts state control.

Extremist groups in Iran view the hijab as central to the identity of a Muslim state. Meanwhile, for the extremists in India, it is the assertion of this very identity in an increasingly radicalised society that becomes a hindrance in the creation of a Hindu rashtra or the Hindu State- a major campaigning point for the country’s leading party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The protests in Iran fuel the narrative that extremists use the hijab as a tool of radical Islam and must be stopped. It is not surprising then, that those participating in the protests view those who support both movements as having inconsistent beliefs and draw a contradiction between the purpose of both the protests.

Hijab as a Human Right

The purpose of the protests is easy to spot. It is simply women fighting for their autonomy against the authoritarian states. In the case of India, the protesters view their right to wear hijab as their right to speech, expression, and privacy- which are fundamental human rights. Women in Iran are taking to the streets to advocate for individual, social, civil, and economic reforms, opposing the compulsory enforcement of hijab laws, which are too infringing upon their human rights. It cannot be denied that through the rage, sadness, frustration, and empty defeat, what Muslim women want is simply to be able to own their right to choose.

This is one of a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2022-2023 Autumn Term. 

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