Hijab Removal, Iranian Women, and Freedom of Dress

This post was originally published at Aquila Style.

The liberal feminist organisation Femen and its members’ naked breasts have had their media run. Now a more modest sort of uncovering is happening, this time in Iranian social media. Last month, London-based Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad started a movement on Facebook and Twitter, translated as “My Stealth Freedom”, to highlight the “legal and social restrictions” faced by women in Iran.

Image via the My Stealthy Freedom Facebook page.

Secular and Muslim women all over Iran are posting photos of themselves without the mandated headscarf, in secluded places where there are no Basij (religious police) to punish them for violating the country’s dress code. The movement is led by women who are removing their headscarves and posting photos of themselves of their own free will.

But the title of an article on Vocativ, “The great unveiling”, gave me a bad feeling. It made me uneasy because the idea of “uncovering-as-freedom” is fraught with historical baggage.

The “great unveiling” has already happened. In fact, it’s occurred many times over in modern history. Algeria under French colonisation is the best example of this.

In Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism (1959), he points to the use of women as a metaphor for the colonised Arabs. Essentially, they represented the Orient. Because women were the main target of la mission civilisatrice, unveiling them was a way for the French to prove that they had utterly penetrated their Algerian colony.

And unveil the French did: in 1958, the military organised mass unveiling ceremonies of women. These ceremonies took place in several major cities, including the capital city of Algiers, as a deliberate display for the international press. There are reports of women who had never worn a headscarf being forced to put it on and take it off, just for the ceremony. Despite the fact that rural women then also did not habitually wear any head coverings, the veil was taken as a symbol of Algeria’s secret primitivism – for the French to civilise, of course.

Women have been protesting dress codes forced on them ever since it became fashionable to enforce such laws. In the book Destiny Disrupted (2009), Tamim Ansary gives a summary of various similar occurrences in the 1920s. Secular modernists across the fragmenting Islamic world in Asia minor were leading resistance movements against European presence in the region. In what would become Turkey, Atatürk declared himself president in 1923 and announced new laws that banned veils and headscarves and discouraged turbans and beards.

The same happened in Afghanistan, when Amanullah inherited the throne in 1919 and declared women to be liberated, and later imposed a dress code in the footsteps of Atatürk. Then in 1925 in Iran, Colonel Reza Pahlavi declared himself the Shah and launched reforms and an identical dress code for ordinary citizens.

What if, in this same time period, Iranian women had protested the forced dress code, posting photos of themselves on the early 20th-century versions of social media? By the beach, or in extremely liberal towns, they proudly wore their hijab, niqab and chador? With their fabrics flapping in the wind and their faces fluttering in and out of view, these women called for the freedom to cover themselves.

But history has a way of repeating itself, sometimes in mirror images. About half a century later, when these countries were taken over by Islamist parties, they imposed the opposite of this dress code. Men were forced to keep beards, risking beatings if they didn’t, while women were forced to wear headscarves. (Beating and imprisoning people was apparently a popular political tactic to enforce dress codes.)

Meanwhile today, all over the world but especially in Western Europe, women are fighting for the freedom to cover themselves. They risk fines and imprisonment; some are being attacked and dying for simply wearing hijab. Belgium was the first European country to ban the niqab in 2011, followed closely by France and the Netherlands. Last year, the Canadian province of Quebec attempted to pass a controversial charter that would also ban religious symbols like the hijab and niqab.

Women who continue to cover that much of themselves in these countries are doing the opposite of these Iranian women – a “great veiling”, if I may – but they are not media darlings for pushing the boundaries of personal freedom. Instead, they are terrorists, bad citizens and ungrateful immigrants.

I respect the “stealth freedom” that these Iranian women are searching for. But I fear that the mainstream media, taught to see covering as oppression and uncovering as freedom, is framing this movement as proof that Iranian women will soon need “saving” by Western imperial powers. These powers have already used the veil/hijab/niqab/burqa as a symbol of women’s oppression that justified the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (another can of worms for another day).

I don’t deny that there are Muslim women or women in Muslim countries who are oppressed. But it is the state, and not a headscarf, that is oppressing them. Freedom is not just being able to feel the wind in your hair, it’s being able to make the choice between covering your hair or letting it free.

Most importantly, I think these Iranian women want to bring to light that freedom is the ability to have a free conscience: free to (not) believe in God, free to speak without fear, free to make choices about their bodies, free to have ambitions for their lives.

  • OakTown4life

    Forced Hejab, Forced Dress Code and Forced Islamic way of Life , have been giving Iranian Women and Men “Bad Feelings” for the past 34 years… so welcome to the Club.

  • Ambaa

    I am deeply opposed to women being forced to uncover. I’ve been dismayed by that for years. I’m opposed to women having any of their choices made for them. They should have the freedom to uncoer and the freedom to cover, each to her own choice.

  • guest

    There’s a big difference between being fined in Belgium and being beaten and imprisoned in Iran. A difference in severity.
    Having said that, you are right that freedom means covering up if you choose, as well as unveiling. I am British and against the bans in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. I think they were misguided and driven by racism. Some people have suggested a ban in Britain, but I hope it never happens. I’m surprised, actually, that a ban like that is allowed under the EU human rights charter.
    It looks like the case is being tested in the European court. Maybe the bans will be overturned. Let’s hope so. I’m amazed that any state can enforce a public dress code.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-nicholas/frances-burqa-ban-gets-ne_b_4450937.html

    and here’s the always great David Mitchell’s thoughts on the issue:
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jul/25/david-mitchell-burqa-ban-tattoos

  • Lifeanddeathveil

    As a non-muslim woman who wear the veil myself (In a hood-type headscarf
    and pretty much covering of my body-way) I want to add that The Forced
    UNVEILING -and tourment for women who has ben insisting on continuing to
    COVER their hair -in muslim majority countries has already happened
    ASWELL. Even in Iran in the 20s and 30s! In Turkey for the major part of
    the last century and still up until this day! There is a novel I once
    read about some of these events called Snow by Orhan Pamuk (who is what
    most would call a westernized muslim and not an especially religious
    Islamist). Otherwise I would probably not have been aware of the
    suffocation from opression of women NOT allowed to cover, since western
    media only focus on the stories about the opposite… But there has
    apparently been loads of SUICIDES commited by women who where pressured
    to UNCOVER their hair -in “majority muslim countries” such as Turkey
    aswell!

    http://www.presstv.ir/detail/187171.html

    Freedom
    when it comes to your own hair and body is not just being able to feel
    the wind in your hair, no. (Which I still DO FEEL through a veil and
    that´s why I have to wear thicker headscarves in the cold season if I
    want to continue veiling.) Freedom is being
    able to make your choice between covering your own hair from the view
    of others because it is not their right and uncovering it when YOU
    yourself want to, putting it up or letting it hang free. Having it
    blowing in your face if you like that or keeping it out of your face if
    you like that, aswell as growing it long or cutting it short like “a
    man”. Also a muslim or non-muslim woman who is or is not wearing the
    veil can be free to put it on or take it off without her family getting
    upset about it AND at the same time be opressed! Because she is doing or
    is not doing OTHER things she does not want to in order not to upset
    her family. And there are FAR more severe sorts of opression than
    covering ones hair! (For example when it comes to a muslim woman not
    being allowed by her family to marry a man if he is not muslim.) When it
    comes to those women who are forced to cover their hair there is almost
    always worse forms of opression behind that aswell. It shows some kind
    of cultural body dysmorphic disorder of the western society today to discuss the covering so disproportionately much! considering all the FAR worse forms of “putting a woman in a prison”. Even more so when it is said like a normal slang word
    that a woman who is forced to veil her body “is forced to cover
    herself”. AS IF she was only a body and a nice, let out hair blowing in
    the wind! If a woman is being forbidden to go outside her home without
    male relatives or to express her opinions in public THOSE ARE examples
    of female opression that SHOULD be discussed instead of her being forced
    to cover her body or hair. Perspective would be needed in this
    “terrribly opressing covering” discussion. Many women who ARE allowed to
    show much more of their bodies and hair in public than the “Islamic
    Hijab guidelines” ARE ALSO opressed in those much worse forms! THEY are
    forgotten in the all over-discussion about weather or not covering body
    parts and hair feels opressive for women! (Maybe they think something
    like “I´ll tell you what feels REALLY opressive”.) Offcourse the degree
    of uncomfort and feeling of opression/inprisonment depends on which
    woman is wearing which type of covering and what personal experiences
    this woman has had with covering and uncovering her body in public
    before. (And probably also what she has heard about it from which news.)
    So the whole discussion about “how it feels for the women wearing it”
    is meaningless! It feels different because all women does NOT have the
    same experiences! But there is an attitude worse than egocentrical women
    thinking that their own negative experiences with wearing covering
    clothes MUST apply to all women! Atleast those women have TRIED (even if
    it was doomed to fail) to put themselves in all veiled womens
    experience.

    The WORST attitude is the misogynic one; that a
    woman covering her hair and/or body (more than other women) from mens
    view AS A WOMAN per definition CANNOT have made that choise about who
    gets to see what and when of HER OWN body and/or hair. That there “MUST”
    be one man (or several men) who decides that any individual woman “must
    cover her body”. Not even the CHOISE to decide which men gets to view
    what of her own body and hair is considered possible to be a womans own
    choise! (According to Real Misogynists on both sides, wheather they are
    for or against the covering.) In a strange way it is not considered to
    be in a womans POWER to decide how to dress herself IF she covers up
    more of her body and/or hair than men around her. In an absurd contrast
    to this it seems perfectly fine to some who are very much against women
    wearing more clothes than men if men are wearing more clothes than
    women! (Maybe since men are considered to always have more freedom than
    women to make their own choises according to these same people.)

    As
    always it would be best if the women who actually WANT to veil in
    whatever form and for whatever reason would get to talk about “how that
    feels” for them just as much as women FORCED to VEIL AND women forced to
    UNVEIL should get the space to talk about why they feel forced and how
    that feels for them! It is forcing that is opression! Not the garment/
    thing used for opression.

    BTW
    EVERYTHING that can be used for opression IS and has been used for opression in this world already, so the opinions about “symbols of opression” comes from a sort of thinking that is too limited! This is why the “is the veil per definition opressive for all women?” -debate comes down to the question about weather or not women can make the choise to veil or unveil their bodies and/or hair themselves. People who refuse to accept THAT will /MY will of a woman are going to disagree (with me acting according to my will)!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X