Will February 1, 2023 settle the hijab debate?

February 1st every year is a battle day for the hijab debate, which refers to the ongoing discussion and controversy surrounding the wearing of the hijab

| Updated: 30 January, 2023 6:47 pm IST
This February 1st, think twice before supporting World Hijab Day

It has been a year since I wrote on No Hijab Day last February and seven years since I first wrote about how the hijab/veiling came to prevail in Kashmir. Since then, Iranian women have upped the ante against mandatory veiling by resounding protests globally, laying their lives on the line, their minds, families, and freedom at stake in the deadly Iranian regime crackdown.

It started on September 16, 2022, when the 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, also known as Jina Amini (Kurdish), died in a hospital in Tehran, Iran, under suspicious circumstances. The Guidance Patrol, the religious morality police of Iran’s government, arrested Amini for allegedly not wearing the hijab in accordance with government standards.

The Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran stated that she had a heart attack at a police station, collapsed, and fell into a coma before being transferred to a hospital. However, eyewitnesses, including women who were detained with Amini, reported that she was severely beaten and that she died because of police brutality, which was denied by the Iranian authorities.

Amini’s death resulted in a series of protests described by CNN as more widespread than the protests in 2009, 2017, and 2019, and by The New York Times as the largest Iranian protests since at least 2009. Some female demonstrators removed their hijabs or publicly cut their hair as acts of protest.

Iran Human Rights reported that by December 2022, at least 476 people had been killed by security forces attacking protests across the country. Amnesty International reported that Iranian security forces had, in some cases, fired into groups with live ammunition and had, in other cases, killed protesters by beating them with batons.

February 1st every year is a battle day for the hijab debate, which refers to the ongoing discussion and controversy surrounding the wearing of the hijab, a headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women in public and in the presence of men outside of their immediate family.

The debate centres around issues of religious freedom, gender equality, cultural identity and expression, and personal choice. Some view the hijab as a symbol of oppression, while others see it as a way to assert their identity and exercise their religious beliefs.

The debate has been at the forefront of public discourse in many countries and has led to laws, policies, and court cases addressing its use. February 1st has been designated as No Hijab Day by liberals, reforming Muslims, atheist/agnostic men, and women of Muslim heritage, to counter the World Hijab Day — misleadingly started amidst rising concerns of anti-Muslim bigotry or Muslimphobia in the West by Nazma Khan, a Bangladeshi American and New York resident.

Anti-Muslim bigotry, or Muslimphobia, is a real and rising concern after 9/11 and ought to be addressed. But for non-Muslim feminists, liberals, and rationalists, it is important to understand the nuances of the debate on the hijab, veil, or modesty dressing, and not end up supporting those who repress other fellow Muslims into wearing a symbol of Islamism.

First of all, it was cruel to choose February 1st as World Hijab Day, because it is also the day when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from his French exile to inaugurate the Islamist Revolution in Iran and ended up forming a government that made purdah (veiling) mandatory, by policing women into wearing the chador, the headscarf and other modest dressing. Therefore, this day cannot be a day to “foster religious tolerance and understanding by inviting women (non-Hijabi Muslims/non-Muslims) to experience the hijab for one day”, as the movement’s website states.

There is a clear Islamist agenda behind this and, as is typical of Islamists, they conceal it behind the facade of liberalism, using the West’s freedom of speech rights and their values to enforce repressive habits, norms, and other regressive social practices, which many on the left will end up supporting.

They do this, perhaps with good intentions, to be ‘inclusive’ but end up serving as useful idiots for what is a dangerous trend, i.e., supporting the very practices that the religious conservatives (albeit an organised minority) coerce on the silent majority dissidents through intimidation, threats, ostracism, smear campaigns, shaming and – in some cases – honour killings.

Women from ‘free’ countries in the West should use the resources of their regions to identify, understand, and recognise those repressed by the religious conservatives of Islam through segregation, seclusion and enforced separation of women, rather than practise cultural relativism.

It is ironic that feminists claiming to fight their own patriarchy fail to recognise this push by Muslim patriarchs to normalise the hijab and exhort non-Muslims to accept it as a symbol of piety or Muslim identification.

Inevitably, non-Muslims too end up practising declaring dissidents as blasphemers and apostates, therefore justifying murder, or wajib ul qatl – by siding with the Islamists in observing World Hijab Day. This normalisation of “not-true-Muslims” (takfirism) in daily life also does a disservice to the internal diversity within the Muslim world, especially in the 21st century.

As the hijab debate – whether it is a symbol of empowerment for Muslim women or not – grows a decade old, India too is gearing up for more disinformation campaigns targeting the democracy and secularism of the country and demonising the current government’s stand to empower Indian Muslim women from the regressive Muslim personal laws and medieval mindset due to the ossified, obsolete ulema (clergy) be it the Deobandis, the Barelvis or the educated Muslim intellectuals from Jamia, Aligarh Muslim University or the usual suspects (fact-checking vulture activists).

So, this February 1st, think twice before supporting World Hijab Day and why it was started, and what you, as a non-Muslim or as a non-hijab-wearing Muslim man or woman (yes, there have been cases of Western men donning it in solidarity), could be supporting. Even if one woman anywhere on the planet is coerced, intimidated, or threatened into putting on the hijab, it cannot be a symbol of empowerment or religious freedom.


Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based writer, blogger and social commentator
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own

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