On 18 February this year, a group of Iranian students demonstrated in front of the Indian embassy in Tehran to demand that girls should be allowed to wear the hijab in Karnataka colleges despite the prohibitions of prescribed uniforms. These protesting students claimed, according to one news report, that the hijab restrictions were discriminatory against Muslims. More significantly, they asserted that these restrictions were, as per the news story, “a violation of the basic human right to freedom of clothing”. It is believed that the demonstration was ‘state sponsored’. The Karnataka hijab case has been heard by the Indian Supreme Court and its judgement is reserved. The Karnataka hijab issue relates to the internal affairs of India and, in terms of international law, the government and people of Iran have no right to intervene in this controversy.
Over the past week Iran has witnessed large-scale protests in several cities in which 41 people are reported to have lost their lives. These anti-establishment demonstrations were triggered because of the death on 16 September of a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, while she was in the custody of the country’s morality police. The Amini episode reveals the hypocrisy of the Iranian state. Why? Because it demands that other countries should respect the “basic human right to freedom of clothing” while denying this very right to its own women.
The wearing of the hijab by women is a social custom in many Muslim countries. It was so also in Iran but Shah Mohammad Reza Pehlavi who ruled Iran from 1941 till he was overthrown in the Ayatollah-led Islamic Revolution in 1979, allowed, indeed, encouraged, women not to wear the hijab. His queens and other ladies of the royal household as well as those belonging to the Iranian aristocracy and the professional middle classes did not wear the hijab. At the same time the women of the conservative sections of society did not give up the ‘chador’ , the traditional hijab of Iran.
Iran’s Islamic revolution did away with any notion of freedom of dress for Iranian women. The zealots of the Revolution demanded that all women in Iran, including foreigners, should dress in keeping with Islamic practices. While Iranian women were mandated to cover themselves with the ‘chador’, it was compulsory for foreign women, including visiting women dignitaries, to cover themselves completely with a coat and their heads with scarves. At the same time the Iranians insisted that foreign women, including leaders, should not touch any males; hence, diplomats always advised visiting lady leaders of their countries never to extend their hands to Iranian male leaders! The Iranians insisted on all this in the name of Islamic practice. In fact, Iranian leaders even when they are abroad do not shake hands with women.
To ensure that Iranian women wore the proper Islamic dress the institution of the morality police was put in place. It was given wide powers to ensure that women were kept in line in public in matters of dress and in their general deportment. The conduct of the morality police is aggressive and many Iranians who are proud of their cultural heritage find them offensive.
Mahsa Amini belonged to Kurdistan and was visiting Tehran when she was picked up on 13 September by the morality police for, it is alleged, not wearing the hijab properly because her hair was partially exposed. She was in custody for three days and died, the police claimed, because of a sudden health issue while she and others were receiving ‘guidance’. Mahsa Amini’s family and the people at large refused to believe the police version. Hence, the violent demonstrations across many cities. In these protests some women threw away their hijab. The police used force to curb the protests.
Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi who was in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly on 20 September came under great pressure because the Mahsa Amini case put Iran, once again, in the spotlight as a violator of internationally accepted human rights. He responded to criticism by giving an assurance that the incident would be investigated. The same assurance was given by other authorities in Iran to control the protests. While many liberal Iranian clerics spoke against the morality police’s highhandedness, significantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has not commented on the incident. At the same time the Revolutionary Guards, the traditional guardians of the Islamic Revolution, have warned the protestors of stern action to control the situation.
The question is if the protests sparked off by Mahsa Amini’s death will have any systemic change regarding the dress codes relating to Iranian women. This is improbable for these codes are intrinsic to the very notion of what is proper Islamic conduct and that the inheritors of the Khomeini revolution are pledged to uphold. There has always been a tussle in Iran between, what is best described by the Hindi word, “rasik” cultural mores of Persian civilisation and the norms of austere Islam. The Khomeini revolution with its roots in the Vilayat-e-Faqih system of governance had to curb the “rasik” urges of Persian culture. This also required the pursuit of stern policies on gender issues. Sometimes, concessions became necessary as they did when women had to be allowed to go to stadiums to see sports and games although in separate stands. But these measures are extended most reluctantly. Certainly, no concessions should be expected in matters of dress though new practices may be prescribed for the morality police to assuage public outrage and to assure the people against a repeat of the Mahsa Amini case.
It is also noteworthy that Iran is not being criticised by any Islamic country for the Amini incident. Indeed, Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari when asked about it expressed full confidence in the assurances of the Iranian authorities to fairly investigate the cause of Amini’s death. And, Iran would not be bothered by Western criticism at all. Meanwhile, it will continue to practice its hypocrisy by seeking freedom of dress for women in countries like India — obviously meaning that those who wish to wear the hijab should be allowed to do so in any situation — while denying the freedom of not wearing the hijab to its own women.
What is more hypocritical is that its leaders seek to impose Iranian dress and behaviour codes on women even when they are outside Iran. This was recently witnessed in New York when Raisi refused to be interviewed by an internationally known woman journalist because she was unwilling to cover her hair and perhaps dress in a manner he considered appropriate.
The writer is a former Indian diplomat who served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, and as secretary, the Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal.
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