What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?

By Trinayani Iyer, Harshita Tyagi SVKMs Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Mumbai University

The Mahsa Amini protests have taken the world by storm. A young woman, arrested by the ‘morality police’ of Iran lost her life while in police custody. Though the cause of her death remains uncertain and debatable, the larger question of personal liberty and bodily autonomy overarches the wave of demonstrations around the world. The concept of moral policing in the middle-east and the assumed authority it possess over lives of people is a relatively newer paradigm to Iran which has witnessed the pre-Islamic revolution era.

The turbulence of the East has spread in every direction and has caused the world talking about rights, liberty, and a woman’s bodily autonomy. However, as much as it is a personal liberty issue, it transcends into government interference and brutality as well. The blog recounts the incident of the arrest of Mahsa Amini by subsequent investigation upon the concept of ‘moral policing’ in Iran. The blog further delves into the principles of liberty and emancipation vis-a-vis the Iranian protests.

The Mahsa Amini Protests

There are uproars, screams, and a collective outcry for justice. This outcry has traversed boundaries from East to the rather reserved West. Women cutting their hair, coming out on roads, showing their support on social media, and the United States of America imposing sanctions; this is a snapshot of what is happening in Iran and around the world for the past few weeks.

All of this started when Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, was arrested in Tehran by the ‘Morality Police’. Her crime? Not wearing the Hijab appropriately. According to Iran’s security services, Amini was detained at a detention facility where she was trained in hijab protocol after being arrested, and it was there that she suffered a heart attack and died. She passed away on September 16 in a hospital in Tehran. In interviews with local media, Amini’s relatives denied the assertions made by the authorities and suggested that she may have been physically assaulted. The Iranian probe into her death concluded that she died because of illness and not physical assault.

Since the death of Mahsa Amini, protests which started from her hometown of Saqqez have spread throughout Iran. In an online posting, the Iranian activist news agency HRANA said that 240 demonstrators, including 32 children, had died in the protests. According to the report, protests took place in 111 cities and towns, as well as 73 universities, and 26 members of the security forces were killed as well as close to 8,000 individuals being detained.[1]

The protests have also cost Iran some international sanctions. The European Union is all set to join the USA, Canada and Britain in imposing sanctions on Iran. The human rights sanctions are a response to Iranian government’s ill-treatment of the protests.

The story of Hijab and Iran

Two relatively different forms of law, from contrary testaments, have been used to try to control women and the covering of their hair and body in the last 90 times.

The first attempt to use hijab as the subject of legislation was in 1936 by a new monarch, Reza Shah (1925- 1941), who wanted to force women to remove the veil in public under his “unveiling” order. The shah’s vision of modernists, swayed by Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, included changing what Iranian women wore.

From 1941 to 1979 there was no law that instructed women what to wear, but numerous women still wore headscarves either as a statement against the monarchy or because their choices were confined by patriarchal values similar as namus (honour) and the strict control of manly members of the family.

The 1979 Islamic revolution introduced the idea of hijab law. On March 8 1979, thousands of Iranian women marched in the road, protesting the idea of imposing hijab with banners similar as “freedom of choice in clothes”. Wearing hijab was obligatory for all Iranian women from April 1983. Since also, all women have been fairly obliged to wear hijab in public, indeed non-Muslims and non-natives visiting Iran.

Over time, the Islamic government has introduced indeed more legal measures and social restrictions to apply obligatory hijab laws. Felonious discipline for those violating the law was introduced in the 1990s and ranged from imprisonment to forfeitures.

Still, there was a different shift in policing the way women in Tehran dressed, starting in January 2018. According to this new decree, women who didn’t observe the Islamic dress law no longer faced forfeitures or imprisonment but rather had to attend Islam educational classes. “Women will no longer be taken to detention centres, nor will judicial cases be filed against them, ”said original media reports citing Tehran police chief General Hossein Rahimi.[2]

Moral Police in Hijab Islamic revolution of Iran

The responsibility for Mahsa Amini’s death is being projected on the morality police, a civil branch attached to Iran’s law enforcement. In fact, Colonel Ahmed Mirzaei, the head of the moral security police of Greater Tehran, was suspended from his part two days ago in response to the public truthfulness.

“Gasht-e-Ershad,” which translates as” guidance details” and is extensively known as the” morality police,” is a unit of Iran’s police forces assigned with administering the laws on Islamic dress law in public.

According to the regulation, all women above the age of puberty must wear a head covering and loose apparel in public, although the exact age isn’t easily defined. In academy, girls generally have to wear the hijab from the age of 7, but that doesn’t mean they need to inescapably wear it in other public places.

Colourful forms of “morality police” have flourished in Iran since the 1979 revolution. As mentioned over, Iran under the Pahlavis banned the use of the hijab. This was, among others, one of the numerous reasons that made the Iranian people hostile toward their government. During the revolution, numerous women wore hijabs to show their defiance to the governance.

The irony is that Ayatollah Khomeini, the first leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who banned taking off the hijab in public after he came to power, had used the hijab as a symbol of the revolution, praising women for protesting” in modest garb to express their horror with the Shah’s reign”

Indeed, groups that weren’t under the Iranian government’s control have sought to act like the morality police. One similar group is” Jundallah,” a Sunni militant organisation fighting for equal rights for Sunnis in Iran, that was designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2010. According to Reuters, the Jundallah would patrol the streets to combat bad hijab” and even institutionalised their own morality police.

But why this continued emphasis on hijab? Are all clerics on board with the strict Hijab law?

In present- day Iran, there are hardly any clerics who openly reject the hijab, though some have supported more flexibility in administering it in the interest of the changing times. A few years ago, Mohsen Gharavian, a fundamentalist cleric, made captions when he suggested that excursionists shouldn’t be forced to wear the hijab. Iranian expert, Alan Vatankam lately bandied in Foreign Policy composition, how historically among the clerical classes, hijab has had both sympathisers and opponents. The latter don’t believe that there’s any religious provision in the Quran that mandates it. He writes, They (opponents) argue the conception of the hijab is mentioned seven times in the Quran. Still, it isn’t about obligatory veiling but rather the separation and modesty of women. Similar different religious interpretations have existed since the beginning of the regime when prominent figures like former jurist Mohammad Beheshti and former theologian Mahmoud Taleghani rejected obligatory hijab- wearing.

The assertion on enforcing Hijab is above all then, about maintaining maximum political control and neutralising opponents. And what’s intriguing about the protest we’re seeing in Iran today is that while women continue to risk death to burn their hijabs and chop their hair in public, it’s not about the clothing. It’s not even about religion. It’s about controlling women that they’re protesting against.

Hijab is a emblematic thing that has brought women to the front and centre, says Nazli Kamvari, Iranian- Canadian feminist author. But it connects them to all sorts of demarcation that everyone is facing.

Opposition to compulsory hijab is just one in a long list of public grievances. The Islamic Republic remains tone-deaf to the plight and the demands of the Iranian people. Raisi was expected to concentrate on creating jobs, tackling corruption, and erecting new housing as he’d promised but instead, he has allocated fresh finances to further bolster the country’s security so that they can better enforce the obligatory Hijab Law and plans to introduce Chinese- style mass electronic surveillance of the public.

Democracies around the world, including the West, precariously fragile and polarised, have been slow to react to this outrage. The mainstream western media have now caught up finally, but are they getting the point of this protest?

Just showing images of women burning their head coverings in defiance isn’t enough. Placing them in the environment of the broader movement for women’s rights in Iran is essential. smearing Islam is a lazy way to interpret this complex movement without truly helping the cause of the Iranian women. They end up fuelling the fire of Islamophobia and shifting what truly is at centre stage a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. However, whether those choices lead her toward particular religious beliefs or away from them, if a woman has the right to make her own choices.

This is a message that will resonate with women around the globe who are infuriated by governments policing what they wear, who they love, and what they do with their bodies. Did the feminists crying hoarse previously over the Burkini ban in France, the hijab ban in India, and protesting against outlawing abortion in America comprehend how important it’s to raise their voices now as well? Is signing an eloquently written petition enough or do they need to start doing further?

That brings us to Indian social justice warriors who have been rather tepid in their response to Iran’s Anti-Hijab protest. They supported the choice argument put forth in the Supreme Court of India to challenge a recent verdict by the Karnataka High Court that confined the wearing of hijabs in classrooms of pre-university institutions. That is the reason why it was expected that they would use louder voices condemning what’s transpiring in Iran, but we have not seen that so far. However, they should do it everywhere and not be particular in their approach for fear of being hijacked by other political movements, If feminists in India intend to fight the grotesque side of patriarchy.

The predominant sentiment circulating among Iranian feminists and activists right now is raw fury which is expected, but they should also honour and appreciate the support pouring in from the international community, especially the international feminists. Being high-brow towards women from other nations when they publicly cut their hair or draw parallels from their own experiences which are much less alarming than that in Iran won’t help the cause of Iranian activists. No one is denying that the Iranian brand of feminism is unique and shouldn’t be adulterated by throwing in women’s issues from other parts of the world, but being inclusive of each other is the only way to move forward for feminists in Iran and everywhere differently.

Emancipation and beyond

According to John Rawls, one of the principles of justice included that, “Each person is to have

an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others”.[3] Rawls, who himself propounded a liberal and pluralistic society, furthered the idea of individual liberty to the extent that it doesn’t infringe on others’ rights and liberty. In the present

case, wearing or ‘not wearing’ a headscarf can be seen as an example of liberty in practice, which doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights.

Dworkin says that “individuals have rights when, for some reason, a collective goal is not sufficient justification for denying them what they wish, as individuals, to have or to do, or is not a sufficient justification for imposing some loss or injury upon them”.[4] In the present case, the collective goal can be determined to be the preservation and adherence of religious practices. Now, in various parts of the world many women do not wear hijab out of choice, does that make them any lesser or any more of a Muslim? The collective goal, regardless of being invasive or not, is contradictory to the very simple concept of “choice”. The collective goal here is taking precedence over one’s liberty to choose. When France banned Niqab a similar outcry erupted, but that time the outcry was to have the “choice” to wear niqab. 

What can an ethicist say about the hijab? John Stuart Mill’s ethical principles are helpful in this regard. Mill is widely considered to be a proto-feminist, and he may have been upset to see Muslim women wearing the veil, as a symbol of the sexual repression and patriarchal domination that is not too far removed from the Victorian society that Mill wanted to reform. But, Mill’s philosophy also orbited around a basic ethical idea: the harm principle. This complicates things a bit.

If a fully conscious adult individual chooses an action that harms no one but him or herself, then nobody has the moral authority to forbid it. Mill’s great ethical preoccupation was always paternalism, i.e., the idea that individuals do not know what is best for them, and external agents must decide for them.

Does the hijab cause any harm? Not so, according to Muslim apologists. They argue that in fact, the hijab is a great protection for women: women are prevented from sexual attacks, and the hijab also allows women not to be objectified by men.

But, even if the hijab is a degrading patriarchal garment, it is nevertheless true that most Muslim women freely choose to wear it. If so, then these women may be harming themselves, but under Mill’s principles, no one has the paternalistic authority to forbid it.

Critics claim that this in fact internalized oppression. That may very well be true, but Mill’s philosophy has little patience for concepts such as internalized oppression. Individuals are free to decide on their own, and if they have internalized oppression, then only they can grow out of it.

True emancipation is achieved when external forces do not dictate how one lives their life. Something which is as personal and as sacred as one’s own body, to be dictated upon how one should or should not cover it, is taking away the most crucial right from that person -the right to bodily and personal agency.


[2] https://www.shethepeople.tv/art-culture/hijab-law-in-iran


[4] https://digitalcommons.osgoode.yorku.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2088&context=ohlj

Edited By : SAILBlogs Editorial Board 

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