KOCHI: On September 16, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, was allegedly beaten to death by the country's morality police, the Guidance Patrols. Her offence: not wearing the hijab 'properly'.
Protests erupted. Images of Amini in the hospital, wounded and with oxygen support, spread like wildfire on social media.
So far, at least 41 people have died in the clampdown by Iranian forces. Many people, including 18 journalists, have been arrested. The internet is shut in many areas. Popular Iranian-American journalist, author, and women's rights activist Masih Alinejad has been amplifying the voice of Iranian women over social media for quite some time. Her appeals to women around the world to show solidarity have gone viral.
"Removing the hijab is a punishable crime in Iran. We call on women and men around the world to show solidarity," said one of her tweets.
"Iranians clearly want to get rid of gender apartheid regime...."
Many women's activists in India, meanwhile, seem to be in a fix. Protests had erupted in India, too, recently over the hijab. Over reasons in stark contrast. For the right to wear the hijab.
The Supreme Court has reserved its verdict on a petition challenging the Karnataka High Court's judgment that upheld the state's decision to allow empowered committees of educational institutions to ban the hijab on campus.
A full bench of the High Court Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna Dixit and Justice J M Khazi had observed that wearing the hijab was "not an essential religious practice of Islam".
It had also noted that the "prescription of uniform dress code in educational institutions was not violative of the fundamental rights of the petitioners".
In the Supreme Court, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, representing the state government, cited the protests in Iran to highlight women in Islamic countries were fighting against the hijab. He also alleged that the Popular Front of India was fomenting trouble.
Lawyers against the high court order, however, maintained that the hijab was compulsory as per the Quran. While reserving its verdict, the Supreme Court said: "Now our homework starts."
'Iran had banned hijab'
Clearly, in both countries, the hijab, a piece of cloth, has become a political symbol. "Here, the Muslims are a minority, and in Iran, an internal minority is fighting for their rights," says writer Mujeeb Rahman Kinalur.
"While one is fighting for the right to wear the hijab, the other is raging for the right to not wear it. I believe both should be allowed."
The Islamic Revolution in Iran, he adds, happened in 1979. "It became a Shia Islamic country that year and established strict Islamic laws in 1983. That is when the laws regarding how to dress came about," he says.
"There was even a time when the hijab was banned in Iran — by Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1936." During that time, the police would forcefully remove women's veils publicly. Some were beaten for wearing it, and some even died by suicide.
Mujeeb believes the protests in Iran might lead to a "cultural change" in the country. "This is not the first time Iranian women are leading protests against rules that restrict them, be it the compulsion to wear hijab or the right to other individual freedoms," he says.
"However, it hasn't reached the stage of the revolution as it happened in Egypt The Jasmine Revolution. The current protests will, most probably, result in liberal changes in society." As women in Iran protest by burning the hijab, cutting their hair, and hoisting flags with their hair, people across the world have been expressing support.
"The protest may not boil over and affect Khomeini's clout, or help overthrow the regime. But the harsh laws restricting personal liberties might see reforms gradually," Mujeeb says.
'My hijab, my politics'
As women burn the hijab in Iran, many Muslim women in India have turned to it, apparently, due to their political beliefs. For Riya Cherada, a 25-year-old designer from Thiruvananthapuram, the hijab she wears is a political statement.
"If you walk down the street wearing a hijab, people look at you differently. Some with sympathy, as if someone has forced us to wear the garment over our head like we don't have any rights or any knowledge about how to become an independent woman," she says.
Riya says she loves wearing the hijab while riding her Royal Enfield, or at a pub. "In a country, where the prime minister said rioters indulging in arson can be identified by clothes they wear, it gives me profound satisfaction doing everyday things wearing the hijab," she adds.
People have been questioning her since the protests erupted in Iran, says Riya, "People are very concerned about the plight of Iranian women, rightfully so. But, at the same time, they are downplaying Indian Muslim women's issues," she says.
On the fundamental issue of hijab, she says the "Quran can be read in multiple ways".
"And Muslim communities also follow the Hadith or Nabicharya. It is a record of how Prophet Muhammad lived and practised the religion. However, most of it is recorded by men," she adds.
"As a female reading of Hadith is not widely available, one cannot conclude exactly how a particular norm or directive should be inferred."
Riya is not alone. Amal Abdulla, 23, of Kozhikode was not strict about practising her religion. "Now, I ensure I wear the hijab while going to university or any offices, presenting a paper, etc," she says.
"What Iran is doing is wrong," says writer and academic M N Karassery. "It is the fundamental religious sections that make wearing a hijab compulsory. It's born out of the view that women are lesser citizens. Amini was arrested for not wearing a hijab properly. It's absolutely inhumane."
Karassery maash, as he is fondly addressed, explains that when Islam was born about 1,400 years ago, the scene was totally different. "We didn't have concepts like democracy, individual freedom, etc," he says. "Now, the stringent dicta of the Quran are facing the challenges of democracy."
He is equally critical of the ban on hijab at some educational institutions in Karnataka. "So what if someone wears a hijab? It's just a headscarf. How does it affect others?"
'Ban the niqab'
Nearly a decade ago, the Kerala-based Muslim Educational Society banned the niqab — that "covers the face" of the wearer in about 150 educational institutions under it. The move was lauded across the globe as progressive.
Karasserry, too, believes the niqab should be banned. "A niqab that covers the face of a woman should be banned everywhere," he says. "Imagine someone walking into a bank wearing a hijab. Does that affect anyone? No. But a niqab makes it impossible to identify the person. So niqab affects others. I have every right to know who I'm speaking to, who is sitting opposite me on the train, who is walking beside me on the road!"
'Not questioning real issues'
Hijab is not a new thing in India or Iran. "In the deserts, where sandstorms are rampant, the Sun is at its zenith, people used to cover their heads," he says. "That is how hijab, purdah or niqab originated. The meaning of hijab is just 'cover'. It doesn't specify anything else."
On the issue of the hijab breaching the dress code in educational institutions, Karassery maash says uniforms are about colour and the fabric of the attire. "Let them wear a hijab in the same colour as the uniform, let the schools themselves provide the fabric for it," he says. "Ultimately, our primary aim should be to ensure every girl receives quality education."
'Part of the attire'
Writer and gynaecologist Dr Khadija Mumtaz condemns Iran's strict Islamic laws. She says there was a time in Kerala when she used to look at women wearing muftha, a type of hijab, strangely.
"That was the time when many in my generation, including myself, had given up the thattam (a type of hijab)," she recalls. "So seeing women in muftha was a bit odd. It became popular due to the Gulf influence."
Khadija says this was how the purdah, too, became popular in India. "Many men working Gulf used to bring purdahs for their wives. It was a novelty for most of them, both husbands and wives. It became a fashion element, maybe even a status symbol. Gradually, it became common."
Girls, Khadija adds, started wearing headscarves with half saris and other everyday attires. "In schools, too, it became a normal part of uniforms," she says.
Khadija, however, stresses that the issues of patriarchy and coercion should not be overlooked. "But banning the hijab will not solve the issue; it is not the right way of empowering girls or women."
She also points out that many Karnataka students protesting in the name of hijab were wearing the purdah, instead. "That sent out a wrong message," she says. "Even now, many people outside the community don't know the differences between hijab, purdah, niqab, etc."
Summing up, Khadija says the hijab has "become a political symbol", a way of "dissenting". Though she personally chooses not to wear the hijab, Khadija believes measures such as bans would only push more women to take up the scarf as a mark of resistance.