The Hijāb as a Billboard for Islamist Propaganda

As the counter-revolutionary movement intensified for over five weeks in Iran, egregious State murders indeed transformed three young brave women by the names of Nika Shakarami, Hadis Najafi & Sarina Esmailzadeh into co-martyrs of freedom and resistance along with Masha Amini, who’s initial death sparked these astounding protests over two months ago. It is time to say that in spite of horrific crackdowns, and the continuation of underground cells directed by mainly women, all those who continue to protest, all those who continue to burn their ḥijābs, deserve the full and complete support of all who subscribe to basic human values of freedom and equality. Without an ounce of doubt, these women are exceptionally fearless. They have shown an incredible reserve, a will power and an intellectual courage to no longer merely demand some supposed ‘cosmetic’ reforms, but rather, the outright overthrow of the theocratic Islamic regime.

Let’s not fool ourselves about what is actually happening in Iran now and for the last five weeks. These women are not just merely “celebrating” or marching for their freedom of expression in general political terms, no! They are fighting a piece of cloth that has come to symbolise an all-encompassing religious intolerance and zealotry as the core of a disintegrating Islamist ideology. The obligation of wearing the ḥijāb is at the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as in many other Islamic societies today. Many Iranian citizens, not only the women, have become aware how the ḥijāb has been used and abused, throughout these 43 years since the birth of the Islamic revolution of 1979, by the Ayatollahs, their religious minions, and all the other men who were and now are in power across Iran. The symbolic value of the ḥijāb must be revealed for what it really is: the female body debased as bill board for an Islamist cause.

Once again, one is reminded of the different revolts between 2017 through 2020, when university students, working class youth and unemployed youngsters throughout Iran were demanding reforms. And then, like now, women were and are at the forefront of these protests, rising up against immense injustice to raise their voices against the theocratic establishment and the Iranian religious violence in all its forms. This is not just some kind of mild transitory eruption or a mere reflection of oppressed experiences over the last forty years. An Iranian woman called Vida Movahed stood on top of a metal box in central Tehran on Revolutionary Avenue in 2017 and took off her headscarf and waved it like a flag for anyone passing by to see. This in a theocratic country where not wearing the ḥijāb is met with lashes, bodily assault, imprisonment, electrocution and even live bullets. Other brave women like Melika Qaragozlu and Nargas Hosseini refuse to exhibit remorse for demanding their basic universal rights, and consequently, continue to face horrific circumstances in Iranian prisons. Iranian women more so than their counterparts in the rest of the Muslim world (think of the atrocious situation for women in Afghanistan, Somalia or Saudi Arabia) have demonstrated tenacity,  courage and the stamina to actually stand up and resist. They rise up and fight without any weapons, leading the nation in virtually all the working-class protests against the Islamic Republic itself. It can be said that Iranian women have borne the brunt of brutal daily violence. In-spite of their second-class status, they represent over 60% of university students. They publish, they form clubs and resistant groups. They are in contact with feminists abroad and continue to fight against the political establishment and the bearded imams. A brave act of an individual or a group of women removing their scarves is not just an individual act in itself, it is a demand that expresses the collective consciousness that refuses to be silenced in-spite of all the daily barriers imposed on these and millions of other Muslim women.

The issue of the ḥijāb has been debated over and over across the West, but let’s be perfectly honest: the ḥijāb is not about modesty. Hijāb is not a cultural symbol of liberation but quite the opposite. It is a very specific cultural, political and religious marker that targets and more precisely aims to separate, discriminate and assume a very specific position between the demarcated role for women verses men. Imposed by men, it is discrimination, packaged as cultural difference. No man in Iran, or for that matter in any other Muslim country, has to cover up. No man in Iran has to prove his virginity. No man in Iran has to legally don a beard. No man in Iran has to justify who they are with in public. And virtually no “Moral Police” in Iran chases men for wearing shirts, pants, shoes and socks.

A significant point here is that perhaps while one is inside the system, one is more keenly aware of the symbolic value of the ḥijāb, much more than when one is outside of it. Of course, we in our so-called free West worry about human rights, the freedom of the individual and the rights of people to wear whatever they want to wear. And of course, we are afraid of trampling over the rights of specific minorities, and especially when it comes to Islam, many of us are even willing to negate those very hard-fought freedoms of absolute equality of the sexes (which even in the West has hardly been achieved). Some of us even speak of the virtues of a modesty in the ḥijāb  in our own midst. But let’s not compare donning the ḥijāb with wearing a Channel scarf for example, or with wearing protective facial gear while being at work in dusty environments. Rather, the hijab is a constant visible reminder of the supposed sin of being a woman: the supposed evil, potential séductrice, in need of being  held down, because she is deemed  untrustworthy,  physically and mentally feeble and seen as  being impure, thus deserving of all kinds of untold punishment that is due to them by God:  i.e. Allah, the State and men.

To argue the Qu’ran or more specifically the Surah Noor mandating the hijab as indicative for the liberty or agency for a woman is insulting at best. I am quite aware that Islam is not the only religion that has such legislation on women; indeed, some would argue that nowhere in the Qu’ran does the term hijab even signify a head covering for women.  For clarity’s sake, in the Qu’ranic context the word ḥijāb itself does not refer to women’s covering, but rather to a spatial partition in an old Testimonial context. Fatima Mernissi of Morocco pointed this out in her brilliant book, The Veil and the Male Elite many decades ago. The literal use of the idea of hijāb is more specifically connected to the supposed narrative of a screen that separated Muhammad’s wives from male visitors to his court. Other implications of ḥijāb literally go back to the Talmudic roots taken by the Qu’ran where the ancient Jewish law acted in rendering women inaccessible and unavailable to all but their husbands. In biblical times, wearing the ḥijāb came to symbolise the transition between maidenhood and womanhood within Judaism itself. During the Middle Ages, all throughout the Jewish realm, the covering of hair became solidified as a religious duty. It was during this very same period that both Muslim and Christian domains started to follow Jewish precepts on the ḥijāb. Again, feminist writers from the Muslim world like Nawal el Saadawi and Leila Ahmed have explicated this historical trajectory in their writings. The earliest confrontation with the Jewish religious authorities came in the form of wigs with a practice that began in the flamboyant French court and engulfed all of Europe. Initially decried by the Rabbinical authorities, who claimed that the wearing of wigs would enhance feminine sensuality which would evidently lead to sinful behaviour. In spite of those objections, as a matter of course Jewish communities started to accept the wearing of wigs as a normative reality.

But, the ḥijāb in the Islamic tradition makes a distinction between those who are righteous and those who are evil doers. In this regard, the bastardisation and the simplification of the term ḥijāb imposed on women can be seen in the portrayal of women as representing darkness and men as light, and this horror of interpretation has occurred throughout the vast Islamic lands. The Qu’ranic perspective on women has thus been used and abused by men to support a brute subjugation of women from all perspectives and if anything, it is about the total enslavement of the women for the pleasure and power of men. Of-course there is little criticality when the question is raised among men, who are brought up in fully-ingrained misogyny. Most men raised in a tradition of women being blamed for existing, see nothing wrong in the oppression of women and the use of violence to enforce that very oppression. Unfortunately, many women who themselves deny their own agency and buy into this religious-cultural dogma of patriarchal violence. follow silently in fear.

In a nation that brutally orders women to coverup, wearing a headscarf that is not too colourful, not too sensual, not too pretty, but no matter what, the damn headscarf has to be on even if a woman is in the midst of having a heart attack, cruelty becomes daily business. The utter ferocity against women for defying State ideology that supposedly promotes equal Islamised values and at the same time arrests, sexually violates, tortures, keeps in prison and eventually kills them, is mind boggling. Equally shocking is the fact that this regressive ideology is what many Muslim migrants in the West wish to either hold on to, or have Western secular laws accept those very Islamist morals and ethical codes that continually and unashamedly dehumanise women; even those women in our midst who have fought long for basic dignities and hard-earned equalities under Western laws that safe guard an individual’s intellectual and personal freedom, misguidedly support the wearing of hijab as a perverse kind of freedom!

For a long time already, I have been fascinated how in different countries the individual freedom of expression and speech is transformed into laws. Think for instance, how Germany has developed a legal system, regarding the wearing and distribution of its symbols of evil from its past. So, the question is when is a piece of cloth considered to be a political symbol and when is it part of the freedom of expression? What if, the women in Iran are allowed to get rid of the ḥijāb as a political symbol, maybe it then could perhaps be (re-)considered a symbol of autonomy? It seems hard for us here and now, in the West and in the East, to differentiate the freedom of expression and the symbolic value when it comes to the ḥijāb. When one sees the violence in Iran and most other Muslim societies against women on a constant basis, insisting and forcing the wearing of these symbols, one would, in my opinion, rethink one’s view on that piece of cloth. One would perhaps look differently at the presence of that very piece of cloth in our public spaces. Not all those ḥijābs and veils dawned by women in our public spheres are representations of freedom of expression as we like to think!

It is so terribly predictable that once again the Iranian government accuses both the West at large and Zionism for what it calls “social disturbances.” The Islamic Republic even dares to claim that it is “confronting enemies of state” or that “they” (meaning Jewish people) represent an international conspiracy lead by the State of Israel”, that is secretly operating behind the scenes. The utter idiocy and base anti-Semitism here seem to be the one and only pitiful official response to a genuine counter-revolutionary moment lead by women?  How insultingly stupid or gullible does The Islamic Republic thinks of its own citizenry to actually deflect its very own repressive nature by once again blaming the Jews for all of its internal and external ills.

We all remember too well, how at the roots of the Iranian revolution, many free-thinkers of that same West, women and men like Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, were embraced and praised by the leaders of the Iranian revolution for their unconditional support. No one in the critical West and in their right mind could support, at that point, the regime of the Shah or the Savak, the Iranian secret service, but no one foresaw how so rapidly that same Iranian Revolution transformed itself into an Islamic nightmare. Of course, the images that were broadcasted on our TV -screens were themselves confusing and defied comprehension with which the speed of how a people can rise up. There was an air of resistance like the kind we had not seen before. Many Iranian women, intelligent, independent, strong, stared to dawn the ḥijāb as a symbol of anti-imperial, anti-American sentiment at that moment in time. Perhaps it was a “free choice” then and there, but what was supposedly a free choice initially, very soon became a noose. A choking obligation to take away any agency that women might possess, individually and collectively.

The Iranian State must be seen as a case of a militarised capitalistic monolith. In many ways, it has unfortunately continued the basic directions from the times of the Shah dictatorship, where the basis of the economy is characterised by the unity of its petro-chemical industry and its military. With both organisms funding all kinds of horrific terrorist organisations that exit solely to destabilise as much of the Middle East as it can, from Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, The Palestinian Territories and Israel. Since the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fanatical devotees forcibly established an Islamic Republic out of the chaos of a dynamic revolution with false promises on democracy and equal representation. So much for the fanciful notions of a viable Islamic democracy? The unfortunate situation created after the Iranian revolution shut all doors of openness and joy for women. They were forced to shut their shutters of freedom and internal reflection to the religious realm. The violence of the Morality Police of the Islamic Republic of Iran has nothing to do with guidance of women. It never had. It is nothing short of a terror force against innocent women and in some cases men. The anger against the Morality Police is discernible given how women are thrown into police vans and normally beaten up while being taken to stations and then once in the complete hands of the authorities they are subjugated to more torture and abuse and unless they are from an aristocratic background or politically well connected, these women just simply languish in prisons in their thousands, without any other recourse. Given the abysmal human rights record this un-precedented act of defiance individually and collectively, these iconic images of women who are not wearing their ḥijābs anymore, setting them on fire, cutting their hair and literally risking their lives, show once and for all that women are visibly saying enough is enough while shouting “WOMEN, LIFE, FREEDOM” as we all should be shouting with them.

Ibrahim Quraishi is a conceptual artist and writer dividing his time between Berlin and Amsterdam. His work has been exhibited extensively across Europe, South/East Asia and the Middle East. He is a regular cultural-political contributor to the German newspaper TAZ : die tageszeitung. His first historical novel, “being everywhere, being no where” (part I of a trilogy), is forthcoming from Seven Stories Press, NY.