I Want to be Myself

Hijab: Unveiling the religious significance and cultural diversity surrounding this attire, exploring its meanings and interpretations.

By Fahimeh Dehbashi

Updated 07:20 pm EDT, September 1, 2023

Published 12:51 am EDT, May 2, 2023

The veil (hijab) or “covering” has the virtue of being one of Islam’s most visible and controversial aspects after the Islamic revolution of Iran. The veil has intertwined religion, fashion, and symbolism for and against women’s right to self-determination.

After the 1979 Islamic revolution, fundamental and stark changes were made to Iran’s previous social, political, cultural, and economic policies. The new Republican government made it compulsory for women to wear the hijab based on some verses of the Qur’an (Islam’s holy book), the Hadiths (saying of the Prophet Muhammad), and the command of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The Qur’an has never unilaterally forced the wearing of the hijab; instead, it suggests it is more appropriate for women to wear a covering. The Qur’an says, “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [the part] of their outer garments, that is more suitable that they will be known and not to be abused; and ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (Al-Ahzab 33: 59, Trans. Tanzil.net).

Side view of beautiful muslim woman in hijab isolated on black

The Qur’an, in contrast to the other holy books, is a highly dynamic and progressive text that has no single interpretation, so this sacred book gives guidance about hijab, entailing believers, or at least scholars, to decide for themselves the appropriate understanding and action. The process of interpretation is called ijtihad, “a powerful idea that has also played a critical role in jurisprudence” (Muhammad, qt. Akou, 336). Therefore, hijab is not a compulsory command even in early Islam by God. The Qur’an recommends it with a caveat that one function of the veil is to protect women from harassment. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s interpretation (ijtihad) was intended to preserve the Islamic government through religious slogans. These slogans, which focused on women and their dress, insidiously helped the government achieves its goal of prolonging the Islamic system in Iran.

Throughout history, Iranian women were utilized as an essential political tool for regime change in the multiple monarchies and religious governments since women were effective instruments to provoke men into action on political issues. However, Iranian women have always been independent and never tolerated accepting the compulsory orders of governments to their coverings. All Iranians remember hearing about the day our grandmothers dared to say “No” to Reza Shah (King Reza) in 1936, who banned the veil and encouraged Iranians to adopt European outfits. Instead of blindly accepting this edict, many women chose to stay inside their homes for years and gave up all social activities. In fact, my own mother left her teaching job because of this compulsory order by the monarch. Even older Jewish and Christian women in Iran found the ban on headscarves hard to accept. From 1941 to 1979, there were no laws to compel women what wear. Also, in the last years before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, headscarves became a popular fashion statement among young generations to express their political opposition to the monarchy. Accordingly, the movement of 2022 is not the first movement of Iranian women against the compulsory orders of the authorities.

Since 1983, the Islamic government has introduced a series of laws to enforce gender discrimination and strict control over women’s decisions on how they would live their lives. The first laws passed enforced compulsory wearing of the hijab, established the patrol guidance police that enforced the compulsory order to wear the hijab, and generally oppressed women in various ways. Worse was yet to come. Later laws targeted working women and encouraged widespread child marriages. Some of these laws allowed parents to coerce their daughters into having a forced marriage and permitted the application of the lowest punishment possible for fathers who took the extreme action of killing their daughters, which was ironically termed “honor killing’.

The most recent widespread protests are amazing to watch after decades of extreme authoritarianism and are made even more remarkable by such unified participation of women and the focus on women’s issues. Equally important, Iranian men have accompanied these oppressed women to include their protests on the high level of unemployment and widespread economic problems. In my analytical opinion, if these public protests continue undeterred in the streets of Iran, and not just the demonstrations of Iranian immigrants residing around the world, this theocratic government will struggle to continue its existence.

Nonetheless, one of the primary counters to the new women’s rights movement is that some Iranian religious populations have challenged the slogan “women, life, freedom.” They cannot stomach or accept a potential secular democratic government that creates infinite freedom because they believe Islam demonstrates its full religious power only when it lives through a political state. It is unfortunate that this segment of religious people, which is less than half of Iran’s population, does not recognize the lived experience that underscore the failure of this 43-year-old theocratic government. It is irrefutable that our Islamic State has failed to accomplish its original and continuing goals, much less maintain our religion’s dignity.

Neglecting or discriminating against religious women with different ideas and emotions than the prevailing political regime is unacceptable. Many of Iran’s women who willingly and happily wear headscarves have demanded that the discriminatory law be repealed and the freedom for personal choices be upheld. It may be surprising to learn that a reform movement for women’s rights started just after the initial Islamic revolution’s victory. However, the socioeconomic difficulties in the aftermath of the revolution and constant political battles with regional and international entities consumed the populace’s attention. So, the original women’s rights movement never really took off; in fact, the turmoil regressed many women’s previous achievements in Iran.

President Muhammad Khatami, a reformist politician until 2005, was heavily supported by women in his elections and was quoted as stating, “We should have a comprehensive view of the role of women and, before anything else, should not regard women as second-class citizens.” His first election felt like an empowerment of the reformist movement in 1997 because the new President disagreed with the paternalistic stereotype of Iranian women as subservient and passive creatures. Reformists in his government and the parliament of the time tried to respond to women’s demands by removing some obstacles to women’s progress. They approved changing laws related to women’s issues, such as divorce, child custody, inheritance, and insurance. However, the Guardian Council1 rejected Khatami’s proposal against discrimination against women. This rejection only proves that women’s problems in Iran are fundamental and, at that time, continued to be driven by the beliefs of clerics that considered women to be tools for men to use and manage. But it must be fairly stated that these misogynistic beliefs are not unique to Iran, and paternalistic views are held by many societies in the east, west, and the Mideast.

Sad muslim woman looking away isolated on black

As I mentioned before, the discriminatory attitudes towards women in Iran are founded on the interpretation of Islamic leaders who have distorted the mainstream ideas of Islam. Hence, the Islamic Republic’s system cannot be considered the truth of Islam and does not even try to follow its spiritual guidance. One of the most spectacular examples of the lack of concern for women’s dignity can be found in the early history of Islam. This is a story of stomach-churning violence in the form of infanticide; daughters who were considered a burden by their families and fathers were routinely buried alive. In the Qur’an, God commands Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) to say to the people, “…do not kill your children for fear of poverty, we provide [food] for them and yourself. Indeed, their killing ever is a great sin” (Surah Al-Isra, 17:31, Trans. Tanzil.net). Prophet Mohammad’s treatment of women was respectful and gave them equal honor and dignity to men. Islamic mystics believe that women are created from God’s Aesthetic attribute, a beautiful feature of creation, so it was important for Prophet Muhammad how men treated women.

In its early history, Islam differs from the Islamic Republic of Iran in many notable ways. The Iranian regime has followed the slogan of Niccolò Machiavelli, who said, “The end justifies the means,” which is part of a political philosophy called consequentialism. This theocratic regime believes its moral purpose is so essential and all-important that any deed to sustain and expand its power is acceptable, no matter how immoral, deadly, or contrary to its core religion it is. From my perspective, this theocratic Iranian government feels it is sacrosanct, and its primary goal is to preserve its Nizam, which is the political system used by the Islamic Republic, even if it requires cruelty and oppression. Nevertheless, the world’s people have seen the regime’s true colors through its unethical and sinful actions, which include severe torture and execution of both women and men just for chanting slogans, removing their headscarves, and pro-women’s rights posts on Instagram and Twitter. The regime has even shamelessly arrested mourners after the politically motivated murders of children and parents by the government itself.

With these cruel and horrific actions, we must consider whether religious people will still sustain their defense of this regime. Many women will still wear a chador2 or cover their hair entirely in headscarves, participate in protests, and write the slogan on the wall against the Iranian regime. This regime has opened itself to criticism of Iran’s people and has become defenseless because its pollical path has separated itself long ago from the origin of Islam. Those few women who still support Iran’s reactionary government are the mothers, sisters, and daughters of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and political officials of the regime.

As I considered the most recent protests against the Iranian government, there are two essential goals. The first goal is the freedom of choice for Iranian women, symbolized by the death of Mahsa Amini, although women’s struggle for this goal began decades before the new protests. The second goal is to provide a unique opportunity to change the regime through the prominent role of women, which has gained the support of the middle and working class, as well as merchants and celebrities. But we cannot forget that other meaningful reasons exist for this burgeoning new revolution. Both men and women are eager to highlight the economic corruption prevalent and condoned by the Iranian government. There are also calls to remember ethnic and religious discrimination (especially among Sunnis by extreme Shiites)3 and the populace’s extreme fatigue with the global sanctions that are consistently rocking the economy.

Overall, these protests and current revolutionary fervor stem from our weariness of the mismanagement within the government and the interference of security and military organizations in social, cultural, and financial affairs. Most Iranians face severe problems due to the regime’s Machiavellian desire to remain in power, and there is a sense of frustrating sadness that surrounds the Iranian people.

It is worth noting again that women will have significantly more influence to push this movement toward victory. Women deal directly on a day-to-day level with these gender discriminations and a weakened economy, and women suffer the most in these complex social and political conditions. The hardest hit in this current turmoil is widows. In our society, widows have a parental duty to make every positive effort for their children’s lives. To support their families, most widows are compelled to hide their widowhood because of unethical behavior and sexual abuse by some men. Overall, Iran’s government has no financial support, job creation for women, and the freedom to choose their lifestyle due to the abovementioned crises. There seems to be no protection against unfair laws for Iranian women. They do not choose their lives now since they have no legal protection or enough resources to counteract their social vulnerabilities. Our social structure needs to provide security, create jobs, and a peaceful life for the women who have a fundamental role in family life.

My thoughts on this powerful new movement by the Iranian women is undertaken here to expand our knowledge of women who shouted, ‘we need to have various possibilities of speaking about an understanding of ourselves, who we are trying to be, and what we are trying to do.’ Iran has no path to reform without changing away from the theocratic state and the constitution, which emphasizes religious faith over essential women’s rights.

Iranian women’s voices have been heard, and we must agree that there is no way to continue accepting this radical regime. We must also agree that the burgeoning new revolution requires support from other nations and governments worldwide. Any religious or ideological government that wants to be accepted by its people and sister nations must be aligned with rationality, global ethics, and human rights. Otherwise, we all suffer.

1 “Guardian Council (Šurā-ye Negahbān), a powerful 12-member council with vast legislative and executive jurisdictions that forms a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution.” (Schirazi, A. “Guardian Council.” 11.4 (2012): 379-382. Web. 30 Jan 2023. iranicaonline.org/articles/guardian-council.

2 “A large cloth is worn as a combination of [a full body length semicircle of fabric] head covering, veil, and shawl usually by Muslim women especially in Iran.” (Merriam-Webster, Dictionary. Merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chador).

3 “Sunni and Shiite are the two main sects within Islam. They agree on most of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Islam. This division originates with a dispute about who should be the successor of the Prophet Muhammad as a leader of Muslims he introduced after his death.”

Muhammad, R. W. (2009). Shari’ah court judges and judicial creativity (ijtihad) in Malaysia and Thailand: a comparative study. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 29(1), 127–139). (Akou, Heather Marie. “Interpreting Islam Through the Internet: Making Sense of hijab. Cont Islam. 4:331-346 (2010). 25 Jan 2023).

The Qur’an. Trans. http://Tanzil.net.#trans/en.sahih/. Web.

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