The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini has jolted the collective conscience of civil society across the globe. She was detained by the “morality” police in Iran because of her “immodest clothing”. Reportedly beaten by the police, she went into heart failure at the station and met her demise after being in a coma for two days. As her bereaved father put it, she was killed for two strands of hair.
Massive protests following her death are seeing violent clashes with Iran’s security forces with at least 75 civilians losing their lives and many more sustaining severe injuries. Women across Iran are publicly burning hijabs and cutting their hair as a protest against the draconian hijab laws in Iran and as a show of solidarity with Mahsa Amini’s cause. Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based organization, reports that the street violence has spread to more than 80 towns and cities forcing the authorities to impose strict restrictions on the use of the internet in a bid to hamper large gatherings of the protesters.
Iran Has Seen Many Protests By Women
This is not the first time that anti-hijab and anti-establishment protesters have hit the streets in Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women in Iran are mandated by law to wear a headscarf at all times in public, failing which they invite huge penalties, imprisonment, or extreme physical abuse, dubbed “re-education” by the morality police.
In December 2017, 31-year-old Vida Movahed was arrested for taking off and waving her scarf publicly, sparking widespread condemnation. Several women including Narges Hosseini, Azam Jangravi, Shaparak Shajarizadeh, Maryam Shariatmadari, and Hamraz Sadeghi emulated her gesture and faced extreme measures by the legal authorities. Islamic scholars like Seyyed Mehdi Tabatabaei have also observed that forcing hijab on people is against Islam and would have a reverse result.
The Indian social media and politically conscious spaces are brimming with post after post about how women are fighting for their right to wear hijab in India, while women are fighting for their right to not wear hijab in Iran, and, in both places, women are fighting oppression in some form.
This narrative denotes a myopic understanding of the situations in the two aforesaid countries. Should women have the choice to wear whatever they want? Yes. Is there anything remotely equivalent between the hijab situation in India and Iran? No.
Hijab Controversy In India
The hijab controversy in India was sparked when some Muslim students of a Junior College in Karnataka were denied entry on the grounds that their clothing was in violation of the college’s uniform policy.
First of all, the Muslim students in Karnataka are not fighting for their right to wear a “hijab” inside the premises, which is just a headscarf in addition to the college uniform. Since actions speak louder than words, it is evident that they are fighting for the right to wear a burqa and a niqab on campus, comprising a black full-body covering and a face veil, completely concealing the uniform and the identity of the student. The word “hijab” is being used to downplay the austerity of their demands.
Second, there is no law in the Indian Constitution mandating a code of conduct for women, in a way that is even remotely similar to the Iranian theocracy. Instead, protected by the “Right to Live with Human Dignity” under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, Muslim women in India are completely free to wear hijabs or even burqa in public places, without any legal repercussions whatsoever.
In the same vein, it is imperative to acknowledge that an institution also has the right to impose a dress code within its premises. A woman’s right to dress as per her wish does not trump the right of an institution to decide a dress code for its entrants. It does not apply only to college uniforms. The principle also holds for hotels, restaurants, religious institutions, and any private or government office premises. A woman wearing the clothes of her choice would not be allowed inside, for example, a medical facility or a madrasa.
The Two Situations Are Different
An argument is being given that wearing a hijab is an essential practice in Islam, obligated upon every woman; that being the case, the equivalence drawn with Iran as a matter of “choice” would not apply. At the same time, if the hijab is not an essential practice in Islam, as Iranian protestors and numerous clerics would gladly tell you, then the demand to wear it inside the college premises once again does not stand scrutiny. Before approaching the courts and citing the Constitution, there is an immediate need to come to a consensus on whether the hijab is mandated by Islamic law or whether it’s a choice of a woman since it cannot be both at the same time.
Full-body coverings and face veils also defeat the whole purpose of the uniform, which, by definition, is supposed to be the same for everyone, erasing markers of any identity apart from being a student. Should Muslim women be allowed to circumvent a college’s dress code and enter the campuses with their burqa and niqab on? Perhaps. But it would not be a right per se; it would be, at best, a privilege. It has always been a privilege that, allowed undeterred for decades, is being mistaken as a fundamental right.
Muslim women in Iran are facing legal repercussions and extreme police brutality for their right to not wear a hijab in public places, while Muslim women in Karnataka are demanding the privilege to breach the dress code of an educational institution to wear a burqa and niqab inside the college premises. Comparing the “hijab” situation in Iran and India is not only morally treacherous and intellectually dishonest but it is also an insult to Mahsa Amini and countless others who are putting their lives on the line to lead a life of dignity.
(The author takes a special interest in history, culture, and geopolitics. He is a proponent of religious reform and identifies himself as “an Indic Muslim exploring Vedic knowledge and cultural heritage through music”. He enjoys playing drums and performing rap when he is not writing columns. Views expressed are personal)
Comparing the ‘hijab’ situation in Iran and India is not only morally treacherous and intellectually dishonest, but it is also an insult to Mahsa Amini and countless other Iranian women who are putting their lives on the line to lead a life of dignity