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Protests in Iran aren’t about the hijab. They’re about policing women's bodies

A protester in Ottawa holds up a sign in the name of Mahsa Amini.

A protester in Ottawa holds up a sign in the name of Mahsa Amini. Zahra Khozema writes that she hopes the comradeship with Iranian women ultimately echoes one sentiment: that a woman has the right to control her own body.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Catherine Morasse


Hijab-opposing laws in the West don’t enflame the same passions as hijab-forcing ones in Iran and Afghanistan

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini (new window) while she was under the detainment of Iran's so-called morality police has inspired protests beyond Iran (new window). Women in solidarity with Amini are burning their headscarves and chopping off their hair in a defiant act of resistance against the Islamic Republic's strict rules on attire and those who enforce it.

Human rights groups say over 75 people have died (new window) since the beginning of the unrest, and more than 1,200 have been arrested by the regime. However, experts say the numbers might be higher since internet blackouts have made it increasingly difficult to confirm fatalities.

After its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran enacted a strict dress code which requires women, regardless of their faith or nationality, to wear the hijab and cover their bodies. The state enforces these laws through the Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrols). The squad is tasked with ensuring the respect of Islamic morals through tactics like imprisonment, fines and physical abuse as a punishment for non-compliance.

A similar nightmare unfolded last year in Afghanistan after the Taliban ordered harsher dress codes (new window) requiring women to cover their faces when leaving the house. Despite the new decrees, brave Afghan women led an online campaign with hashtags like #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture to showcase their nation's colourful cultural clothing.

These women show will and valour

Demanding justice and fighting for basic human rights is no easy feat, especially before a regime that uses religion as a shield to justify abuse. No part of Islam I know condones torture or murder for what tyrant men consider modest. The will and valour of these women should garner international solidarity and celebration.

But before you think the West can take the moral high-ground on this, let's reconsider the role of Western states (and India (new window)) in eradicating the same freedom for women who choose to veil. France, Denmark, Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, Belgium, and Switzerland all have a partial or total ban (new window) on the hijab in some or all of their municipalities. 

And let's not forget the laws (new window) of a province in our own country, which ban some public servants from wearing religious symbols, including the hijab. But hijab-opposing laws in the West, for some reason, don't enflame the same passions in us as the hijab-forcing ones in Iran and Afghanistan. The leap to use foreign intervention is not the way to deal with those passions and the anti-Islam sentiments that underline them, yet the West often takes advantage of these situations.

Maybe it's because of the narrative we've all been fed. You know, the one in which places like Tehran or Kabul are romanticized for once-upon-a-time being cosmopolitan centres where women could socialize in miniskirts and other Western attire. Then, medieval Islamists came to power and reverted them to the dark ages, legitimizing the foreign governments' need to go and save them.

Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes, said Laura Bush (new window) in her husband's customary weekly radio address in 2001, as justification for the violent invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. 

They can listen to music and teach their daughters without the fear of punishment, she added. 

A plight-of-women defence for war

Politicians in the U.S. and its ally nations have long weaponized this imperial feminist rhetoric under a plight-of-women cloak to defend their wars. Even now, their response unsurprisingly remains the same. Last week, for example, U.S. lawmakers pushed for additional sanctions (new window) on Iran, enabling economic and political unrest that further marginalizes (new window) women and minorities.

This phenomenon of imperial feminism needs to reckon with a brutal truth. One in which women in the Muslim world or Muslim women in the West do not need saving — at least not through Western intervention and war. An item of clothing does not determine the measure of freedom. It requires a much deeper lens, one beyond the hijab. 

So, what is this mythical measure of freedom, if not a headscarf? And why do women need to fight tooth and nail for it? I don't know, but there is a lyric in the sung and screamed Song of Equality (new window), written by Iranian women activists subjected to the oppression of the Islamic Republic, that may help direct us to an answer. The line translates to I sprout from the wound on my body, just because I am a woman, a woman, a woman.

A less-cynical side of me is trying to convince myself that perhaps the reason recent protests in Iran have garnered growing solidarity with women in North America is due to the sombre aftermath of Roe v. Wade. 

This side of me hopes the comradeship comes with the understanding that whether it's Iranian women chanting for their freedom to not wear the hijab or women here fighting for control over their reproductive systems, the demands ultimately echo one sentiment: that a woman has the right to control her own body.

This column is an opinion by Zahra Khozema, a freelance journalist based in Toronto. For more information about CBC's Opinion section (new window), please see the FAQ (new window).