Fashion is clothing that makes a statement. The current sartorial affidavit of the freedom debate is the infamous hijab, which conservative Muslims consider a mark of modesty and modern Muslims an emblem of gender slavery and patriarchal tyranny in countries governed by savage laws.
Iran is one such country of darkness. This week, prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes - 21st century Islamic chic. She represents women arrested or jailed for discarding their hijabs. Mortal enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia are united by a passion for moral police and Islamic vigilantes. They routinely stop women for not adjusting their headscarves properly and order them to wipe off their make-up. Defiant women are slapped, beaten, handcuffed and thrown into police vans.
A single religion across two cultures and continents is in conflict over its defining costume: the hijab. For Western Muslims, it is a proud signature of defiance against rising Islamophobia. Recently elected US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar wears a hijab to work. But Sotoudeh perceives the hijab as a symbol of oppression. For Omar, it represents religious freedom—ironically possible for her only in the West and not in Islamic countries.
9/11 and the subsequent global polarisation that followed, advanced political Islam’s invasion of other cultures through proselytisation or violent terror. Until then, nobody in the civilised world thought much of hijabs and burqas, which were indulgently considered quaint customs of a primitive culture. Subsequently, Islamic rule in Asia and the Middle East brought these garments to world attention. Reports of women whipped, jailed and even executed for shedding burqas shocked the world.
Suddenly, the burqa was the new horror black. A woman describing the experience of wearing one told a newspaper that she felt like a “blinkered horse, forced to look straight ahead, undistracted by what may be happening on either side of me.” Exactly what a conservative Muslim man, a Wahhabi cleric, a Saudi Mutaween policeman, an Afghani Taliban and an Iranian ayatollah would expect of women, her burqa stopping her “from really seeing where I am going and it stops me from seeing what’s going on to my left or right”.
Wait. Some Hindus have their version of hijabs, too. Women cover their heads at ceremonies and in front of elders as a mark of respect. However, the scriptures do not order women to cover their heads, nor is it mandated during prayers and ceremonies.
Clothes make the man. In the Islamic world, clothes unmake the woman. For centuries, her body has been the battleground of history, embellished, sanctified, violated and worshipped. And the war is far from over.