Most scholarly commentary on the treatment of women in Islam is inconclusive. Those who are not believers are baffled by the many contradictions and implications, but are generally expected to mind their own business. Yet, from time to time, one can see what those who receive consider their rights. And how it can come from inside a hardline Islamic country.
It is instructive, though concerning, to observe a rare women’s revolt in Iran after many years of orthodox Islamic rule by the Ayatollahs, beginning with Ayatollah Khomeini 43 years ago (1979). It has erupted since the arrest of a young Kurdish girl by the morality police on September 13, 2022. There are some 10 million minority Kurds in the province of Iranian Kurdistan, often victims of repressive measures.
This has particularly upset women in Saghez, western Iran, and other places in Kurdistan province, after the death more or less in custody of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who was one of theirs.
The young woman, according to the police, died of a heart attack. They issued a statement denying any brutality on their part, in the face of growing protests from women, and an investigation was ordered by the government.
Tehran Police Commander Hossein Rahimi said in a statement reported by the Fars news agency: “The incident was unfortunate for us and we wish never to witness such incidents.” Loose accusations have been made against the Iranian police. We will wait for the day of reckoning, but we can’t stop doing security work. A lack of apologies and a refusal to admit any wholesale wrongdoing.
Human rights monitors said Amini was arrested and punished by police while they were “re-educating” her, for failing to properly follow strict and mandatory hijab regulations. Her family, with whom she was en route to Tehran from Kurdistan, said Amini was in perfect health moments before she was arrested and locked in a police van.
Videos on social media show outraged Iranian women cutting off their long hair and removing their hijabs before protesting in the streets in the face of tear gas canisters and riot police. They were shouting “Death to the dictator”. The revolt spread to the capital Tehran where the unfortunate woman died in the intensive care unit of her Kasra hospital.
The strict hijab laws are enforced on the instructions of former hanging judge Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s president.
Compare this courageous struggle by Iranian women, facing almost certain reprisals, with the opposite demand in parts of India demanding the right to wear the hijab at all times.
And that includes time spent in schools, colleges, examination halls and elsewhere, such as the armed forces and the police, even when a uniform is prescribed. The movement in India is encouraged and aided by radical Islamic groups who have persuaded some young women, often family members, to answer their call. The same groups and their supporters have also taken the issue to court, including the Supreme Court, so far without success.
Here, we seek to frame the right to wear the hijab as a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. That the legal battle, for and against, and the objections raised by multiple parties outside the courtroom are also political in nature, only complicates the issue.
Although some comments lean towards the use of the hijab at all times in public under the general principles of Sharia, it is clear that India is supposedly a secular republic and has no obligation to observe Islamic law in the public domain. However, years of appeasement policies followed by previous governments at the Center and in a number of states may have encouraged recent efforts.
The problem, seen as regressive to the issue of women’s rights, is obvious to people who are not followers of Islam. But most Islamic minority groups are more concerned with their religious identity and what they see as its tenets. There is also a political assertion at the heart of the hijab issue related to opposing in any way possible a presumed Hindu majority government. To some extent, he received moral, vocal and financial support from Islamic organizations abroad. These include those with ties to Pakistan, ultra-liberal groups in the West like that of billionaire George Soros, keen to overthrow the Modi government, and as always, China.
Soros made it clear in Davos, Switzerland before the Covid-19 pandemic that he was pledging billions of dollars to bring down the majority Hindu Modi government.
Many Western governments are also grappling with the growing trend of minority groups seeking to informally craft laws and practices for themselves. It ends up being a microcosm within the larger ethos of larger communities. So much so that some urban areas densely populated by minorities have become no-go zones for other communities and even armed police.
However, in these nominally Christian countries, the percentages and absolute numbers of minority groups are small. Despite this, they face frequent public order issues involving terrorist attacks, murders, rapes, arson and public order disturbances involving these minority groups.
India, however, has 200 million Muslims, and some of them are struggling to impose their customs outside the confines of their close-knit communities. While India is theoretically pluralistic, this imposition also attempts to restrict and deny the practices of other, often much larger, communities.
In a predominantly Shiite Iran, it is the homogeneity that proves troublesome. It may suit the regime in place and the men to impose their dictates on the women of the country. But women in turn don’t like it. Similar sentiments are likely simmering beneath the surface in Sunni Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Most Afghan and Iranian women outside the two countries boldly state that they do not agree with the suppression of their sisters in the countries. But it is not easy to protest while living within such policies, and this is what makes the Iranian revolt, also led by an oppressed Kurdish minority, particularly remarkable.
It probably won’t come to anything anytime soon given the overwhelming odds. But the death of a young woman for wearing the hijab, leaving some of her hair showing, did not go unnoticed by the world.
The author is a Delhi-based political commentator. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
Read all Latest opinion news and recent news here