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The West is looking at Iran’s deadly hijab protests the wrong way

BY HADIA MUBARAK, The News Observer. 18 October 2022

Since the tragic death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last month, two other young women in Iran have been killed by Iran’s security police for joining protests and violating the country’s dress code. Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh were only 16. As a professor of religion at Queens University of Charlotte who has spent a decade researching and teaching on women and gender in Islam, I find myself fielding familiar questions from students, colleagues and at interfaith events about this tragic incident of gender violence. Many of us in the West are quick to read such stories through a cultural-religious lens. It becomes for us yet another example of the way a “misogynist” Islam or patriarchal Muslim world oppresses women. Cases like that of Mahsa Amini need to be accurately understood through the lens of contemporary politics, history and sociology. To understand why hijab has become so politicized in Iran one needs to examine the country’s recent history and politics, not religious texts.

It was less than a century ago that the Iranian government banned the headscarf, known as hijab. In 1936, Reza Shah Pahlavi, declared a ban on hijab in an effort to promote European attire. Iranian women who failed to comply faced punishments such as imprisonment. Ironically these are the same punishments women face today for not observing the hijab. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, enforcement of hijab became a political statement of resistance to the previous Shah’s western-oriented reform. In both cases, women are denied agency to choose how they dress in public.

When authoritarian regimes and extremist movements, such as the Taliban, ISIS, or Iran’s current regime, weaponize religion and religious symbols like the hijab, it reinforces the stereotype that women have no choice in the matter. By forcing women to observe this religious practice, they have undermined its spiritual value for millions of Muslim women and denied them their God-given agency to choose whether they observe the hijab or not. In fact, based on many ethnographic studies, the majority of women who choose to cover their hair do so out of a spiritual commitment to God. In correcting the narrative, I make four points. First, the Qur’an, which Muslims regard as the words of God verbatim, explicitly states that religion can never be forced upon people. The Qur’anic verses that ordain the headscarf for Muslim women start out by commanding men to lower their gaze and observe modesty. These verses undermine the myth that women are selectively required to be modest, while men are free to gaze and lust after women as they please.

The case of Amini has much more to do with Iran’s contemporary politics and recent history than with religion. To accurately understand gender violence in countries like Iran, we must stop laying all problems on the doormat of Islam and recognize how modern nation-states’ recent histories shape the present.

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Hadia Mubarak is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Queens University of Charlotte.