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The Brave Women of Iran

Dr. Fathima M
Assistant Professor of English,
Jyoti Nivas College, Bangalore, India

The recent protests in Iran following the institutional murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini are not just electrifying, they also mark a watershed moment in women’s freedom struggle in the country. Women are now coming out on the streets sans their scarves, chopping off their hair, expressing their anger and asserting themselves as dignified humans. We, humans, have created a world where being a mere human is such a big ordeal.

At this juncture, denouncing and criticising religion is the most superficial thing to do. As ironical as it may sound, while one nation punishes and murders a woman for not observing purdah, another country, India, banned the hijab in schools a few months back, leading to a huge conflict between school administrations and students. No matter what justifications the authorities give, banning hijabs and making purdah mandatory are both tools used by patriarchial and hyper-masculine nation-states to control the autonomy of women and show them their marginal space in society. The abortion ban in the USA is no different from forcing women to wear or remove hijab elsewhere in the world. It is only by enforcing such rigorous laws that the status quo of a patriarchal and misogynist world can be maintained. Iran, already a theocratic state, is no different.

The Iranian state employs the morality police to enforce a strict dress code for women. While a chador (scarf) and roposh (a long overcoat) are mandatory, young women are also expected not to wear makeup or anything that invites the male gaze. In a “Garden of Eden” setting, these primitive laws and equally primitive and suppressive reasons to justify them today are very much a reality in Iran. It is interesting to see how Iran is always seen in the light of the post-revolutionary era, making the criticism of Islam easier and ignoring the looming question of women as objects in patriarchal societies even simpler.

During the rule of Shah Pahlavi beginning in 1925, veils and scarves were banned in Iran by Shah in 1936. Pahlavi Shah believed in kashf-e hejab, which means unveiling, and the law prohibited women from observing purdah in any way in public, including in schools. Part of it was to modernise Iran, as Shah considered purdah an outdated custom and a sign of “backwardness”. The police forced older women who observed purdah to unveil themselves. The contrast today is no different, not contrast but the other face of an oppressive, patriarchal and misogynist regime. Women’s clothing became an important crucial issue in Iranian politics and while it might seem that women were banned from wearing whatever they wanted from 1979 (after the Islamic Revolution), this tyranny has a long history and can be seen during Shah’s rule.

Even though many women enjoyed freedom under Shah’s rule, especially compared to today’s oppressive regime, Shah was as patriarchal as anyone else. He preferred that women wear western clothes and dress in a more forward way, probably in fewer clothes. One of the biggest misconceptions regarding women’s clothing is the presumption that fewer clothes signifies being more liberal and progressive, and putting on an extra

garment by default symbolises restriction and regressive thoughts. It is naive to assume that women in skirts and swimsuits have more freedom than women in hijabs. As long as anything is being imposed on women, they are not free. The question here is not of skirts or hijabs but the enforcement of any dress code or social etiquette. And to this end, any discussion on whether the hijab is good or bad is unwarranted. Let women decide what they want; state intervention in such affairs is not just redundant but tyrannical.

Recently, while teaching a Kannada novel in English translation, “Breaking Ties” by Indian author Sara Aboobacker, the students (all young women) were appalled to see the lack of choice women often have, even in the most intimate and personal realm. Everything is subject to societal approval. At the heart of it are various regressive practices derived from religion and society, but the pressing question remains that of choice, a woman’s choice in a man’s world. When religion becomes too entangled with the question of freedom, it is hard to see patriarchal structures that enforce such regressive laws. The novel mentions the word “consent” many times, and yet women in the book are not presented with any choices. Men speak for them and decide on their behalf. Even when given a choice, the protagonist has no natural choice. It is choosing between one misogynist practice over the other. And rather than seeing the suicide in the novel due to the tyranny of men and patriarchal traditions as mere suicide, one must argue that it is an institutional murder, just like it is Mahsa Amini’s murder, not her death while in custody.

It’s time to ask the right questions without meandering and whataboutery and by using the correct language. As Mona Elthahawi, an Egyptian writer, activist, and staunch feminist, says, patriarchy is like a war, and we must be united in fighting against it. Mahsa Amini was a victim of a patriarchal and misogynist society where a woman is merely an object for pleasure. What we need to question is a pathetic world where women are forced to wear certain things and look in a certain way for the sake of men. Both Eastern and Western cultures are patriarchal and authoritative in their own ways.

I end with these lines by Forugh Farrokhzad, in the memory of Mahsa, hoping that one day, somewhere, she will find justice and a new, free world will be born, and the unjust patriarchal structures will be abolished one day.

“I don’t repent.
It’s as if my heart flows
on the other side of time.
Life will echo my heart,
and the dandelion seeds sailing
the wind’s lakes will re-create me”
(trans. Sholeh Wolpe)

The author is an assistant professor of English at Jyoti Nivas College, Bangalore. She received her PhD in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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