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Muslim women’s double whammy: Systemic repression and toxic Islamophobia

Jin, Jiyan, Azaadi (women, life, freedom) is, safe to say, the chant of the moment echoing in Iran’s fierce protests as they enter their fifth week in the wake of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death post her arrest by the morality police over an alleged breach of dress code failing to properly wear a hijab imposed in the Islamic country for women. The latest tally indicates at least 233 people have been killed in various crackdowns, according to a US-based human rights group, as President Ebrahim Raisi’s regime ramps up pressure and the use of force on dissidents. The fatalities also include 23 children, according to Amnesty International. The repercussions have also involved detention of journalists and censorship on the flow of information, including a ban on social media applications like WhatsApp. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) revealed at least 28 journalists had been detained by the security forces, calling on the authorities to urgently release them. 

“Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and allegations of torture and ill-treatment must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated by an independent competent authority, that ensures, in particular, that her family has access to justice and truth,” said acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif, adding that the authorities must stop targeting, harassing, and detaining women who do not abide by the hijab rules.

The resilience of Iranian women in the face of oppression inspired protests across the world. Demonstrations in support of their freedom and against the authoritarian regime have been taking place in European cities and North America from time-to-time led by Iranian expats as well as non-Iranian activists and women’s rights supporters. From Paris to Istanbul, Madrid to Los Angeles, a coordinated global movement is demanding an end to the persecution of women in the Shia majority country.

In a display of solidarity, several non-Iranian women, activists and actresses chopped off their hair. Actresses Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche posted videos cutting their hair in support of Iran’s women. Angelina Jolie posted on her Instagram, “women don’t need their morals policed, their minds re-educated, or their bodies controlled. They need freedom to live and breathe without violence or threats.” Member of Knesset Sharren Haskel cut her hair at a conference in Jerusalem in a public act of solidarity with the protest movement. 

The mobilization and social media support for the women of Iran is essential in amplifying their voices amidst cruelty and bloodshed. The intimidation violating fundamental rights has been a constant in their lives spanning across different time periods of their country. Reza Shah, the ruler in the 1930s, prohibited women from wearing the hijab during his reign and authorities were ordered to forcibly remove women’s headscarves. Post the 1979 revolution, in a drastic and equally regressive and authoritarian step, a mandatory dress code was imposed that required all women to wear the hijab. With women’s free will to choose for themselves brushed aside, something as basic as attire or the dress code becomes the center of morality. 

In 2019, a court in Tehran sentenced three women to prison for protesting laws that make wearing hijab compulsory, the Human Rights Watch had reported. The unprecedented protests today, which some consider a revolution, are a result of decades long resistance led by women against hijab being used as a tool to suppress them.

These protests are, however, also being used by Islamophobes to bash Islam, the hijab and advance their narratives that are not necessarily coming out of concern for the Iranian women or women’s rights and have gotten more to do with jumping on the bandwagon and pushing bigoted, Islamophobic agendas. Double-standards, for instance, can be seen in India where anchors cut their hair on-air in solidarity with Iranian women but show no support for Muslim women in their own country as the latter’s religious freedom comes constantly under attack. Increasingly marginalized, India’s Muslim men and women have been on the forefront of targeted attacks, stereotyping and violence from rightwing politicians predominantly the Hindutva apologists and the media. Indian Muslim women’s struggle to maintain their identity and enjoy civil liberties has been threatened with the rising intolerance in the world’s largest democracy, especially after they emerged as a powerful force to be reckoned with during a wave of demonstrations against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.

In France, anti-Muslim rhetoric and Islamophobia prevalent on the institutional level, have disproportionately harmed Muslim women whose attire has incessantly been a subject of discussion and scrutiny. Wearing or not wearing the hijab is a choice that only women should make for themselves and this basic right, wherever and whenever it is violated, warrants attention and support.

Iranian women are not just defying a dress code and fighting for their bodily autonomy, they are resisting  long-established, deeply-ingrained, state-backed patriarchy that treats them as inferior and continues to haunt a large amount of women, specially Muslim women, in various parts of the world. Their cause and fight for freedom should not be hijacked and polluted by narratives that fuel Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.  

About the Author
The writer is a journalist from Pakistan, mostly covering social issues and women's rights, and an Erasmus Mundus scholar currently based in Prague.
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