Iran Protests, Hijab, and "The Right to Choose"
Some thoughts on the hijab, in general (as it exists now, in the modern age), as well as the reality behind Iran's protests
Last week on September 16th, 2022, Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman died in Tehran. The circumstances of her death are somewhat unclear, but the narrative as of today is that she was killed in police custody after having been arrested due to not wearing the hijab (or not wearing it properly); as the Iranian law currently enforces it for all women in the country. Those who don’t abide by it are quickly arrested and in many cases beaten by the “Guidance Patrol”, Iran’s equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s religious police.
Of course, as is usual, this led to another igniting of the hijab debate among Muslims both in the Islamic world and the West, where the head covering was both questioned and affirmed by those who despise and are passionate about it (respectively). This is a common occurrence whenever a western nation puts restrictions on the hijab, or whenever a Muslim woman is physically attacked by demented goons in a western nation for wearing it. I want to talk a bit about the larger discussion it’s sparked, and why we continue to suffer from this debate year after year whenever something like this happens.
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The extreme hard-lining when it comes to the traditional Islamic headscarf is an issue that is heavily charged and sensitive, but nonetheless a consequence that has only come about as a result of the last 100 years; much like every other token issue regarding the relationship between modern men and their women. It is no longer a matter of just modesty vs. scantiness, religiosity vs. secularism, but also of things like identity, social and economic class, and the clash it represents between Western civilization and the Orient. The greatest differentiator in the mind of anyone when asked to imagine the “big thing” that separates the modern western woman and an eastern one, is whether their hair and body are covered or not.
Unlike what is commonly believed, the rest of the Muslim world outside Iran and Saudi Arabia does not have national hijab laws, though it varies regarding female students in schools. In the most populated Muslim nation, Indonesia (207M+), the hijab is optional in public, but many of their schools mandate it. In Jordan (10M+ Muslims), now considered a leader among modernizing Muslim nations, the hijab is optional both in public and in most schools. In both of those countries the women who wear it don’t think much about it, it’s just a part of their daily uniform and the story tends to just end there.
In the West, it’s a different story entirely. Muslim women in the Anglosphere (USA, Canada, UK, where it’s allowed but seen as strange by the majority of the native populace) are split into so many camps of wearing it or not, for a variety of reasons, that it’s pretty nauseating for laymen when you get into the gritty details.
You can put it on a spectrum. On the far left of it are women who don’t wear the hijab at all and frankly despise the practice, even theologically. Then you have those who don’t wear it out of sheer lack of religiosity but know it’s mandatory in the divine law. After that, you have those who don’t wear it but “want to”, and believe they just need a little push like getting married, performing Hajj (the pilgrimage), having children, or all three.
Then for those who wear it, there are those who do so but “loosely” (hair showing, or wear clothes that accentuate their figures alongside it), those who wear it as a political statement (the Ilhan Omar/Linda Sarsour types), those who just do so because of familial and cultural pressure, and so on. As you can see, it’s not so cut and clear when you actually get into it, is it?
Considering this, let’s take a look at the theology behind it so we aren’t lost, and know from where we’re looking out from. The commandment for women to cover up in the form of the hijab came in the fifth year of the hijra (627 AD), 17 years from when the truth of Islam was first sent down to the Prophet (PBUH). This is an important detail. The commandments for the five daily prayers, rules of hygiene, ceasing fornication and adultery, all were relatively quick to be revealed in the first decade or so of Islam. The hijab however was one of the last major commandments, before the Farewell Hajj five years after that. Meaning, the hijab is important, but there’s a huge host of other practices and trials that the Prophet’s (PBUH) companions went through, including some of the most brutal battles of their lives, that adequately built up their faith and discipline before the hijab and lowering of the gaze, two commandments for each respective gender that were revealed simultaneously. It also helped that even before it was a commandment, it was customary for women to cover their hair in public anyway. What changed was, according to the verse in Surat al-Nur verse 31, that they use the scarf to cover their front (upper part of the body) instead of just throwing it behind their shoulders.
If Islam were a pyramid, the hijab would be one of the stones nearing the top. It’s a crown jewel to display the faith of the Muslim woman, and therefore it can not be there if the foundational blocks don’t exist first. A believing woman who prays, fasts, guards her chastity, and is good to her family will wear the hijab with much greater ease, with less persuasion, than a woman that does none of the above. Yes, there are many hijabis who also do not apply the foundations of the religion, just as there are many non-hijabis who do all those things and more, but those usually represent exceptions to the rule, not the rule itself.
Knowing this, and seeing the hijab in this way, it should be obvious that enforcing the hijab from the top down instead of fostering it from inward to outward is an insane idea. If you’re dealing with a religiosity issue in your “Islamic society”, and the only way your women will wear the hijab is if you threaten them with beatings and jail time, you’ve failed from the outset and are dealing with far larger problems than you’re willing to admit. It’s like trying to treat a samurai sword neck wound with bandages and ibuprofen.
Many Muslim women (and men) get offended by this since one is directly saying that not wearing the hijab is an issue of lacking faith (which it is), however, the kind of faith lacking here is distinct. A giant reason why many Muslim women, especially in the west hesitate to wear the hijab is that they know it’s a social handicap, and especially a handicap when it comes to getting attention and approval from the opposite sex. This effect has exponentially increased with the advent of the internet and social media. Their lack of faith isn’t regarding God, his commandments, or the Prophet (PBUH), it’s a lack of faith that they’ll be okay after the change in their social lives as a result of wearing it. If you’re a young, Muslim, college-aged woman that doesn’t wear the hijab and regularly posts on social media, I’m willing to bet the following: many of those casual American girlfriends of yours are only comfortable around you because you dress and look like them. 90%+ of the guys who follow and try to DM you on Instagram would not do so if you had the page of an average hijabi.1
It’s very ironic that many Muslim girls who don’t wear the hijab like to cope with “it doesn’t define me, I’m still a good Muslim without it, it has no effect on who I am,” but none of them ever behave as if that’s true. They know it matters. They know that their coworkers, professors, friends, desperate male-orbiters, and so on all view them a certain way, and are terrified of the immediate change it would bring to those relationships if they were to cover up and act as a hijabi should, without the distinct advantage of open feminine attractiveness. It’s not that you don’t trust God is right, it’s that you don’t trust your own ability to cope in society without your looks and physicality making everything easier for you. This is the hardest part of the hijab debate for many to accept, as it requires a basic understanding of how men and women operate that western, feminist ideology turns upside down.
Adding on to this, another reason is that the hijab levels the “looks hierarchy” women uphold among one another. Women pretend to hate hierarchy in polite conversation, but no one worships it more than they do in their direct actions. Hijab is an incredible equalizer of female looks. It’s true the face alone does a lot, but when you restrict what a woman can flaunt, it puts the vast majority of women in an Islamic society on the same playing field in everyday life, preventing extremely seductive women at the very top from slinking past their lessers, and allowing women who are less fortunate in the looks department to skate by with a bit more ease. The hijab is one of those things that work best when most women do it. Many of these problems we’re discussing arise precisely when a minority are the only ones sticking to the practice (and yes, Allah will reward them exponentially more for suffering this grievance).
The tough reality is that whether you get mass wearing of hijab or not depends on whether you’ve cultivated the kind of society that allows women to operate without these fears, many of which come about as a result of the cancerous, secular western society that has been pedestaled as the role model for the rest of the world. The pressure on a woman to wear the hijab should not come from the state or a society built on filthy coomerism, but from familial, spiritual, and cultural discipline. Some will read that and think “but that means it’s forced!”, which is a childish and stupid argument. You’re forced to do things that you know are required but you don’t “like” doing every day, and most of the time it’s the government that makes you do them. You compromise your dignity, self-esteem, finances, and a general sense of fulfillment every single day for useless bureaucrats and jobs that you hate. You obeyed the government from the bottom of your heart when they told you to stay home, inject a mystery serum, and wear a diaper on your face for two straight years. So yeah, I think it’s not that big of an issue if a woman’s family and sacred religious texts “make” her dress a certain way by raising her upon that path, in a gradual and smooth manner. Get a hold of yourself.
The reasons for the protests in Iran are not surprising at all, and most of those causing chaos don’t really care much about women or “their rights” at all, but that’s not the point. Iran has a growing society of young people that clearly want to be secular but legally can’t, and the dumb and incompetent regime full of tyrannical boomers thinks the solution is just to beat and shoot them a little more, and that they’ll quiet down. I don’t know how one fixes that, but it’s clear that if your goal as a group of Islamic leaders was to “get women to wear the hijab”, you’d recognize how misplaced your priorities are. Your goal should be to have a society of practicing Muslims who value religion in their lives and see the foundations of the religion as essential first, and we’re yet to get a set of Muslim leaders who recognize this. Maybe we will in another century, where we become worthy of such men in the first place.
(Disclaimer: I’m not accusing anyone of unchastity, but there’s a big difference between reveling in male attention and engaging in its consequences. The former is one many multitudes of us, of both genders, are guilty of.)