Unveil FAIL: The Backlash Against Fariba Davoodi, Part I

This post was written by Sara Khorshid Doost.

Fariba Davoodi Mohajer is an Iranian women’s rights activist. She moved to the United States a few years ago after things got tough for her in Iran. Recently, she has decided to no longer wear hijab.

Most notable among Iranian media reactions is a surprising interview with the Parazit (“Static”) program on the Persian Voice of America (VOA) channel. The Persian VOA is a news channel and mostly involves analysis of current events and some roundtable discussions or reports. The Parazit program is a more youth-oriented program of this channel and generally has a humorous take on news and current affairs. In each program, there is also an interview with a public figure that is less conventional and very candid.

On the May 6 episode of Parazit, she takes off her headscarf on camera. The original video can be seen below (the interview with Davoodi begins at 4:25, and the headscarf discussion begins at 6:20):

Here, the host interviews Davoodi about her work with the One Million Signatures campaign, her activism, and her headscarf. My translations of the headscarf discussion are below, but the tenseness in the interview is apparent no matter what your language:

Parazit Interviewer: Well, Mrs. DM, [hesitating] in front of the camera, you always wear a headscarf, right?

Fariba Davoodi Mohajer: Yes, that’s true.

PI: Outside, I mean, when I see you outside [pointing to outside the studio] you do not wear a headscarf, right?

FDM: No, I don’t.

PI:  Whether you wear a headscarf or not is none of my business, but I have an issue with the fact that you wear a headscarf in the studio, while you weren’t wearing it five minutes ago, before you entered the studio.

FDM: Right. As I said, I am now wearing a headscarf in front of the camera due to respect for a particular person. However I believed in wearing it for many years, I decided to wear hijab many years ago myself. But I took off my hijab in protest to the violence, domestic and social violence, it had nothing to do with having or not having faith in religion. It had nothing to do with it at all. By the way, I also believe that women should be free to decide what they wear, and no one has the right to persuade [or dictate to] a women to dress or not to dress in a certain way, or what role to play or how to participate [in society]. But [with emphasis], in protest to the violence, hegemony and the whole process of the Islamic Republic [of Iran] in the last 30 years, I have taken off my hijab. So I wanted to say that …

PI: Don’t you think his is a kind of dual standard (hypocrisy)?

FDM: This might be the impression that one gets, or there might be other impressions, but the truth is that I always wear the headscarf in respect for a [particular] person, because …

PI: Excuse me, by the way, this is a very personal issue that I’m asking you about. You are, anyhow, free if you don’t …

FDM: No, I believe that for a political activist, a human rights activist, there are no personal issues. Because we have to be transparent …

PI: [interrupting] Whether you wear a headscarf or not is none of my business, but I have an issue with the fact that [? the issue is that? ] you wear a headscarf in the studio, while you weren’t wearing it five minutes ago, before you entered the studio.

[You say] you have taken it off? But you’re still wearing it now …

FDM: No, I can take it off, there is no problem …

PI: If there is no problem, well take it off then …

FDM: Here you go … It was in protest to the existing situations … [drops the scarf around her neck]

PI: No, take it off completely if possible.

FDM: [a bit annoyed, takes the scarf off from around her neck] Here you are.

Despite the irreverence of the program, the interviewer was a bit over the top when discussing the hijab issue: he was on the verge of rude, almost interrogating her. Davoodi herself seemed very tense and even annoyed. There is a possibility that they had agreed on the questions when something as delicate and personal was going to come up, and she insisted she is very transparent on the issue. But I still found this somewhat disturbing.

Davoodi mentions that she used to wear the headscarf as her personal decision. It’s understandable for someone who has decided to wear hijab freely and with no pressure at some point to decide to take it off because she does not find the previous reasons relevant any more, or has revised her views. It’s a process that any woman may go through, tuning and revising your beliefs over time.

What I find distasteful is the insistence on this decision having a symbolic meaning and being in protest to mandatory hijab in Iran or the hegemony that it creates, not just because her views on social life and religion have changed. I can’t help but find such a gesture to be opportunistic.

Following the last point, the act of removing hijab solely because of those who want to enforce a dichotomous political and social discourse plays into the hands of the very discourse that Davoodi wishes to undermine. This particular narrative identifies politics with religion, and the dichotomy dictates that those who are politically on the “wrong side” must also lack in religion (religion being the ultimate good in this view), and vice versa.

Abandoning what you believe in because it conforms to this discourse’s narrow definition of religion as a means of political dissent is accepting the dichotomy. I am not saying that Davoodi has necessarily done this, but it’s a potential pitfall of her line of reasoning.

Davoodi mentions that she respects women who wear the headscarf, but obliquely questions their choices:

PI: In all these years that you wore hijab, did it bring you protection? (A reference to a popular government slogan in Iran: “Hijab is protection, not restriction.”)

FDM: It never did, not only did it not grant me protection but it set the ground for – although I should state here that I respect all those who wear hijab because of their beliefs, that is, if those beliefs are not a result of social impositions and propaganda, if it is not because the husbands, fathers, and brothers have imposed hijab on woman in a way that she says “Yes, I believe in it myself.” It’s actually an issue of taboos or norms, a good-bad dichotomy where you wear a headscarf because you want to be “good,” because you want to be judged as a noble (chaste) woman.

Given that there is a certain amount of truth to this, this is a tricky argument and can be potentially used to question the agency of any woman who decides to wear anything. When we say “choose,” we implicitly suppose that the subject is content with the choice.

Stay tuned tomorrow, when we discuss more Iranian media reactions to Davoodi.

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