Hijab and the Right to Choose

Source: The Scroll

Recently images coming out of Iran have shown women burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in public, this is being done as a sign of protest against the law in Iran which makes wearing a hijab mandatory. The demonstrations started following the demise of Mahsa Amini, who was visiting Tehran with her family when the morality police detained her for not properly donning the hijab. According to witnesses, she was severely beaten by the morality police before she died, despite the fact authorities claim she died of a heart attack or an epileptic fit. While Iranian women demonstrate for their right to be free from the burden of donning a headscarf, there is a similar debate raging in India. There was a major uproar when college students in Udupi, Karnataka, were forbidden from wearing the hijab in the classroom. The students claim that the ban on wearing the hijab is an attack on their right to practice any religion guaranteed by the Indian constitution. While the Karnataka High Court declined to give relief to the students, the matter is now pending before the apex court of the country. Nevertheless, these two situations from two very different parts of the world, which concern the same piece of cloth, give us a peek into how complex the relationship between religion and gender is in the modern world.

The western view of the hijab and Islam is quite simplistic and oversimplified. Western standards of freedom and morality view the hijab as a sign of oppression and repression and hijab-wearing women are often categorized as women in need of saving. This generalization is quite untrue. Simultaneously, virtually all orthodox schools of sharia law require public covering of the body, namely to the neck, ankles, and below the elbow. Women who do not cover their hair are viewed as being indecent and immodest since it is considered a natural part of life, a symbol of modesty, and most importantly, a display of reverence before God. We can say that both the western view and the Islamic view of hijab see women through a stereotypical lens and both the situation in Iran and Karnataka are similar in the sense that they do not give the right to choose to the women concerned.


Right To Choose

To “modernize” the nation, pro-Western monarch Reza Shah outlawed all face coverings and headscarves in 1936. Iran, therefore, was perceived by the west as a country that was “progressive.” After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when women were forced to wear the hijab, this situation reversed. According to an interviewee in Haleh Esfandiari’s book Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic

Revolution, “When the veil was finally abolished officially, it was certainly a victory for women but a tragedy, too, because the right to choose was taken away from women, just as it was during the Islamic Republic when the veil was officially reintroduced in 1979.” The similarities between the two issues in Iran and Karnataka are captured in just this one sentence. In both instances, women were robbed of their right to choose.

Women’s right to choose is rarely advocated. A woman rarely has the right to make her own decisions and choices. Most of her decisions are formed or influenced by the standards of morality prevailing in the patriarchal society. So, a woman living in a conservative Islamic nation may be shamed for her decision to not wear the hijab while a woman living in a place where western standards of morality prevail may be discouraged from wearing a hijab by society. Another instance where women are denied the right to choose is in the institution of marriage. In many Asian and African households, the women are not allowed to even choose their own groom. After marriage, the bride is not even allowed to decide if she wants to work or not, where she wants to live and how many children she wishes to conceive. She becomes bound to the whims and fancies of her husband and her in-laws. A woman is referred to be a “difficult woman” when she exhibits stubbornness in exercising her freedom to choose. A patriarchal culture cannot tolerate women who take control of their own life. They are uneasy about their inability to control them. Men are ignorant of the freedom of choice that exists for Women.

To take away the right to choose from a person is to take away their sense of self. A woman has the right to choose what she wants to do. A woman must have the fundamental right to make decisions about her body, life, and future and the same is essential to the pursuit of racial, reproductive, and economic justice. Any attack on such right by any institution or person is an attack on the individuality of a woman. When a woman is forced to wear a hijab or is prohibited from wearing one, she loses her sense of self and this creates a sense of despair in the woman as the freedom to choose her own identity in the society is taken away from her. Thus, we can say that taking away a woman’s right to choose is a form of violence against them.



If we look at the ban on hijab in Karnataka and the obligation to wear one in Iran, we can conclude that these regulations are made neither to protect the women nor does it have much connection with religion, rather these decisions are taken by the patriarchal state to protect its own so-called culture and morality, while at the same time taking away the right to make free decisions from women and as a result snatching away their sense of self from them.

The right to an abortion in the USA, equal pay in sports, or the ability to walk about safely at night are just a few of the battles that women are engaged in throughout the globe and in various spheres of life. It is important to keep in mind that these battles are more nuanced than one might expect given the desire for simplicity. There is the fight to wear a hijab in Karnataka, and the fight to be free of one in Iran, but ultimately all these fights culminate in the fight to choose. And it has always been the most difficult battle.