By Faraz Talat
June 16, 2015
Where citizens are forced to abide by the norms of a certain culture, disrespect for that culture for the mere sake of disrespect, becomes a mode of resistance. Thousands of Iranian women are posting pictures of themselves online with their hijabs removed, as part of a rapidly growing movement across the country.
Last year, an Iranian journalist, Masih Alinejad, in an act of defiance of her nation’s ultra-conservative culture, posted a picture of herself on Facebook without her hijab. She launched a Facebook group – ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ – which has now snowballed into a movement of over 800,000 followers, inspiring thousands of Iranian women to post photographs of themselves with their hair uncovered.
Women in Iran are legally obligated to keep their hair covered in public. Just last year, 3.6 million women were stopped by the morality police – not the figurative kind, but the ‘actual’ police – and warned, fined, or arrested.
Naturally, the movement has found enemies among the conservative bulwark in Iran and other Islamic nations that growl at the movement for promoting ‘indecency’ and ‘impiousness’; those who consider pardah so virtuous, that one may be forgiven to impose it on women, either strictly through law (as in Iran) or subtly through social pressures (like in Pakistan).
Disappointingly, many Western liberals, although enthusiastic about the idea of gender equality, are hesitant to put the full weight of their support behind this group so to not drum up the dreaded ‘white saviour complex’. I empathise with my liberal counterparts in the West, as one wouldn’t want to send the wrong message that ripping a hijab off a woman’s head in South London is some form of charity towards ‘oppressed’ Muslim women.
Western people should, however, be aware of the geopolitical context of this story. Iran is, of course, a place where Muslims constitute the primary establishment, not a relatively toothless minority, like in the United Kingdom. And unlike for women in most Western countries, hijab is not something a woman chooses for herself; it is chosen for her by the society and state.
Though the situation may not be as dire in Pakistan, it would be ignorant to not consider the intense social pressures women here face to maintain pardah, through our own variety of conservative garments. In a society where leaving home without a dupatta invites judgemental glares, catcalls, and sermons from disapproving elders, a woman is usually left with no choice but to submit to the society’s approved dress code, or prepare to face its unmitigated wrath.
In the context of this culture, where conservative garb already enjoys wide-scale approval, pro-pardah activism like the ‘30-day Ramazan Hijab challenge’ or the ‘World Hijab Day’, is an exercise in redundancy and convenient parroting of the status quo. You want to try a tougher challenge? Pledge not to stare and hoot at a dupatta-less woman walking past you on the street, for 30 days.
I don’t mean to trivialise anti-Muslim bigotry in the Western world, which I have written about extensively. But when conservative nationals of Islamic countries decry that bigotry, while exhibiting complete apathy or even antipathy for the freedom struggles of people in their own countries, it undermines their own agenda.
This is one of those struggles that you need to get behind, regardless of your personal stance for or against hijab. Because this is not about debating the virtues and vices of a certain cloth; it is about reaffirming our support for people’s right to choose their own religious and cultural values.
Faraz Talat, A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat