Iran’s protest against forced hijab sparks online debate, feminist calls for action in Arab world: Newsdrum

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London: Iranian authorities have cracked down on protests that erupted after the death in police custody of a 22-year-old woman arrested by vice squad for not wearing the hijab appropriately. The death of Mahsa Amini who was reportedly beaten after being arrested for wearing her hijab “inappropriately” has sparked street protests.

Unrest has spread across the country as women burned their headscarves in protest against laws that require women to wear the hijab. Seven people were reportedly killed and the government almost completely shut down the internet.

But across the Arab world – including in Iraq, where I grew up – the protests have drawn attention and women are gathering online to offer solidarity to Iranian women struggling under the country’s harsh theocratic rule.

The application of the hijab, and by extension the guardianship over the body and mind of women, is not exclusive to Iran. They manifest themselves in different forms and degrees in many countries.

In Iraq, and unlike the case of Iran, the forced wearing of the hijab is unconstitutional. However, the ambiguity and contradictions of much of the constitution, especially Article 2 that Islam is the primary source of legislation, allowed for the condition of forced hijab.

Since the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein launched his Faith Campaign in response to economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, pressure on women to wear the hijab has been widespread. Following the invasion of the country by the United States, the situation has worsened under the rule of Islamist parties, many of which have close ties to Iran.

Contrary to US President George W Bush’s 2004 assertion that the people of Iraq were “now learning the blessings of freedom”, women endured the heavy hand of patriarchy perpetuated by Islamism, militarization and tribalism, and exacerbated by the influence of Iran.

Going out without a hijab in Baghdad became a daily struggle for me after 2003. I had to wear a headscarf to protect myself everywhere I entered a conservative neighborhood, especially during the years of sectarian violence.

Flashbacks to pro-hijab posters and banners hanging around my university in central Baghdad have always haunted me. The situation has remained unchanged for two decades, with the hijab apparently imposed on children and girls in primary and secondary schools.

A new campaign against the forced wearing of the hijab in Iraqi public schools has surfaced on social media. Natheer Isaa, a prominent activist with the group Women for Women, which leads the campaign, told me that the hijab is cherished by many conservative or tribal members of society and the backlash is predictable.

Similar campaigns have been suspended due to online threats and attacks. Women posting on social media with the campaign hashtag #notocompulsoryhijab, have drawn reactionary tweets accusing them of being anti-Islam and anti-society.

Similar charges are leveled against Iranian women who defy the regime by removing or burning their headscarves. Iraqi Shiite cleric Ayad Jamal al-Dinn denounced the protests on his Twitter account, calling the protesting Iranian women “anti-hijab whores” who seek to destroy Islam and culture.

Cyberfeminists and reactionary men In my digital ethnographic work on cyberfeminism in Iraq and other countries, I have encountered many similar reactions to women who question the hijab or decide to remove it. Women who use their social media accounts to reject the hijab often face sexist attacks and threats that attempt to shame and silence them.

Those who speak openly about their decision to remove the hijab receive the harshest reaction. The hijab is related to women’s honor and chastity, so removing it is considered a challenge.

Women’s struggle against the forced hijab and the backlash against it challenges the dominant cultural narrative that wearing the hijab is a free choice. While many women freely decide whether to wear it or not, others are forced to wear it.

Academics must therefore revisit the discourse around the hijab and the conditions perpetuating its compulsory wearing. In doing so, it is important to move away from the false dichotomies of culture versus religion, or local versus western, which obscure rather than illuminate the root causes of forced hijab.

In her academic research on gender-based violence in the context of the Middle East, feminist scholar Nadje al-Ali highlights the need to break with these binaries and recognize the various complex power dynamics involved – both locally and internationally. .

The issue of forcing women to wear the hijab in conservative societies should be central to any discussion of women’s broader struggle for freedom and social justice.

Iranian women’s rage against the compulsory wearing of the hijab, despite the security crackdown, is part of a larger struggle by women against autocratic conservative regimes and societies that deny them agency. The collective outrage in Iran and Iraq invites us to challenge compulsory hijab and those who impose it on women or perpetuate the conditions that allow it.

As one Iraqi activist told me: “For many of us, the hijab is like the doors of a prison, and we are the invisible prisoners. It is important that international media and activists highlight their struggle, without buying into the narrative that Muslim women need to be rescued by the international community.


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