Headscarf – symbol of religious oppression – could become emblem of inclusion

It is not ironic that women in Iran are fighting for their right not to wear a hijab, while women in India are fighting for their right to wear one. Both are fighting for the same thing: her right to choose.”

A simple post of mine showing solidarity with women around the world and the nuances of feminism seems to have taken the internet by storm. It has gotten nearly three lakh likes and has been shared by women like Gigi Hadid, Padma Lakshmi, Nargis Fakhri, Tamil star Aathmika and numerous others. Two groups of women around the world are simultaneously engaged in the same struggle – to keep the rules of the state outside their bodies and dress codes.

Iran has seen a major civil rights movement led by its wives since last week, following the unfortunate death of a 22-year-old Kurdish girl, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. In India, the Supreme Court has started hearing the petition to allow students of a public school in Karnataka to wear the headscarf as part of their uniform.

Several Indian feminists oppose the hijab and see it as a symbol of religious oppression. Is freedom of choice under discussion? Is Faith Wrong?

These are complicated questions, especially in an increasingly polarized world. Ideas about clothing and nudity vary from culture to culture. For some, not wearing a headscarf is considered nude. For others, wearing a sports bra and shorts is considered dressy. Several factors influence the way we perceive our bodies, but unfortunately the two most determining factors are religion and politics, both of which are preposed by men.

In 2019, in terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, the country’s prime minister wore a headscarf in public to show solidarity with the country’s Muslims. Last week, Rahul Gandhi’s padyatra photo featuring a young Muslim girl wearing a headscarf saw a plethora of memes by right-wing groups. The scarf, a symbol of religious oppression, can also become an emblem of inclusion.

Hijabs, veils, and burqas have attracted a lot of attention in recent decades. Both in the Middle East and worldwide, women are returning to the veil thanks to Orthodox beliefs and Salafist propaganda, as well as an affirmation of faith when the West shows open support for Israel.

The veil occurs naturally in different cultures, such as the ghoonghat for Hindus, or the head covering for devout Christians and nuns (even Mother Mary’s head is always covered), and the tichel for Jews.

Iran sees women burning their hijabs in public and chopping off their long manes, while her politics take center stage. Hair has often been used as a visual shorthand. Angela Davis’ Afro became a symbol of the US civil rights movement of the 1960s. The punk movement of the 1980s saw anti-establishment mohawks. Iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood shaved her head in 2014 to draw attention to climate change.

Iranian women, who have not been allowed to expose their hair, are now turning it into flags blowing in the wind. It is reminiscent of The Wind in my Hair, the memoir of Masih Alinejad, one of the most famous Iranian feminists, where she argues that the revolution in Iran was a revolution against women.

The women of Iran are retaking the revolution and take us back to the reign of King Reza Shah Pahlavi from 1925 when he ordered women to take off the hijab (they were forced to do so again in 1979 by the radical Ayatollah), or to Persia of Cyrus the Great, where women and men had equal rights and freedoms.

Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self-portrait with Short Hair’ (1940) shows the artist holding a pair of scissors, with a severed braid on the floor. Above are the words, “Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that you don’t have hair anymore, I don’t love you anymore.” Kahlo’s art harks back to her divorce from Diego Rivera the previous year and her newfound autonomy.

@namratazakaria

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