Law & Politics

The long battle for women’s freedom in Iran

The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, while in the custody of Iran’s ‘morality police’ in Tehran sparked anger worldwide.

Women marched in cities including Athens, Berlin, Brussels, Istanbul, Madrid, New York, Paris, London and Melbourne to express solidarity with Iranian women.

Amini’s tragic death on 13 September tells the grim picture of how Iran’s rule requiring women of all religions to wear headscarves has taken a toll on a woman’s life.

This rule, enforced since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, became stricter upon the enforcement of the new ‘‘hijab and chastity’ law signed on 15 August 2022.

Under the sharia law, the regulation emphasises harsher penalties for women who don’t cover their bodies in public spaces and online postings. Punishments include being deprived of their social rights for six months to one year, barred from entering government offices, and even being taken into custody for ‘re-education’ sessions.

Under this rule, the police arrested Amini for not wearing the hijab properly – and sent her home lifeless.

The death of the 22-year-old has had a massive impact around the world and within Iran itself. The incident drew international condemnation and sparked protests across Iran that began on 17 September, and have claimed the lives of more than 50 protesters.

The massive protests across Iran demonstrate an accumulation of everything that has gone wrong with the country since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

These rallies show that women and men are tired of the power that uses religious values to deny women bodily autonomy. By depriving these freedoms and autonomy, the regime not only marginalises women, but also threatens their lives.

Women in Iran are risking their lives, as they’ve reached a dead end. They prefer to fight for their rights and freedoms in the streets and risk death rather than be humiliated.

In Iran, the hijab became a significant identifying factor for the newly established regime after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Soon after taking power, the Islamic Republic of Iran adopted the sharia law into its governance system, and mandated that all women of all religions and nationalities wear headscarves.

Just as the previous regime banned women from wearing veils to conform to the Western values that signified modernity and liberation, the post-revolutionary regime mirrors this gendered initiative by imposing the forced veiling rules to prevent immorality posed by Western values. Thus, Iranian women have always been thrown out of the frying pan into the fire throughout these political turmoils.

Through these rallies, women take the stance against decades of oppression committed under the pretence of upholding religious values.

Inevitably, the state’s compulsory hijab rule and the deprivation of women’s equal rights with men sparked resistance from women. As a result, the Iranian government arrested hundreds of women’s rights activists over four decades, and suppressed women’s movements.

Nationwide women-led protests in Iran unfold the accumulation of rage over decades of patriarchal oppression. Women took to the streets, burned their headscarves, and cut their hair as acts of uprising against power, corruption, and injustices that have taken place for more than 40 years in the name of sharia or Islam.

In this “battle over hijab”, women fight against the state, whose political identity is tied to the hijab as an emblem of Islam. For the regime, losing this battle means losing the state’s legitimacy as an Islamic state.

Meanwhile, for women, fighting for their rights and freedoms is a matter of dignity and autonomy, a battle of survival against the state’s patriarchal tyranny and systemic inequality.

Just as the veil has been a symbol of forcing women to submission, burning the veil symbolises their agency. Through these rallies, women take the stance against decades of oppression committed under the pretence of upholding religious values.

In her opinion column on 27 September 2022, Indonesia Islam and gender expert Lies Marcoes warned that Amini’s death should be a warning sign to other countries that use women’s bodies and sexuality as moral issues, and how the hijab is associated with political identity symbols over time.

Indonesia falls within this category. The use of the hijab as a symbol of political identity has long been a reality in Indonesia, but, in recent years, the issues surrounding the head covering as a political and religious identity has been trending downwards.

In March 2021, Human Rights Watch published a report, ‘I Wanted to Run Away’: Abusive Dress Codes for Women and Girls in Indonesia. The report highlights the various discriminatory rules and social pressures on women and girls to wear the hijab in public schools, among civil servants, and in government offices since 1990.

It summarises the experiences of women and girls who have been persecuted for not wearing the headscarf, in the form of public judgment, bullying and psychological terror, which ultimately traumatises the victims.

The Indonesian government responded to this alarming situation by issuing a joint ministerial decree in February 2021 that prohibits public schools in Indonesia (except Aceh) from imposing the wearing of the hijab on their students.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court overturned the regulation in May 2021 after the Minangkabau Customary Institution (LKAAM) petitioned against this rule to the Indonesian Supreme Court. Since then, incidents of bullying for not wearing hijabs by figures of authority such as teachers at schools or senior employees at workplaces have continued to haunt women.

The phenomenon of compulsory headscarf-wearing is not exclusive to Islam, as seen in the Iranian chastity and hijab rule, and the forced imposition of hijab in Indonesia.

The politics of head-covering has also affected Catholic women’s bodily autonomy. The Catholic Church, based on the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1262 paragraph 2, stated that:

… Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.

This rule signified the strict gender norms among Catholic women and men at that time, where women’s head coverings symbolised sexual purity and modesty, and could help men avoid the sin of committing adultery.

The practice of head coverings at mass has gradually been abandoned since the Second Vatican Council in 1962. However, a small group of millennial Catholic women in the United States has begun to return to the practice of covering their heads with a mass veil in the church in recent decades.

For these women, wearing a mass veil gives them more confidence, and a sense of being more attractive to men. The use of head-coverings also asserts self-agency for women who choose chastity and purity as a way of life, which may be at odds with the lifestyle of young American people.

All over the world and throughout history, a woman’s body has been the playground of various ideologies and identity politics, and a strict dress code for women has always been a strategy to uphold these political identities.

Major religions in the world impose the use of veils for women to regulate their followers’ morality, such as in the case of Islamism and Catholicism.

In doing so, these religions put the burden of “purity and modesty” on women, resulting in a denial of women’s rights, and control over women’s bodily authority. Therefore, when a state adopts religious values into its governance system, it tends to replicate how religions “interact” with women.

Inevitably, government policies and rules reinforce religious ideologies that assume female subordination in the public realm, as we can see from what’s happening now in Iran. Every woman in Iran could be the next Amini just for being present in the public realm.

Freedom and dignity are the core values in every religion. Nevertheless, Amini’s death shows quite ironically the exclusion of women’s rights as a part of religion’s core values.

Reflecting on Amini’s case, if the imposition of the hijab can kill women in the worst-case scenario, it should be a warning sign for Indonesia to prevent this from happening in the future.

This article was co-authored by Alma Fazeli, PhD Candidate at School of Language, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, Faculty of Arts, Monash University. Her main interest of study is intellectual history.

This article was originally published on Monash Lens.

Photo by Matt Hrkac on Flickr (CC).

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