In Iran, women protest against the hijab. In India they sue to wear it
MUMBAI, India — Images of Iranian women protesting and burning their hijabs have fascinated Indians, in part because they see the opposite scenario playing out back home: Muslim women are suing the Indian government for the right to keep their hijabs.
Their lawsuit, brought by high school students banned from wearing headscarves in classrooms in southern India, landed in the country’s Supreme Court, where this month judges admitted that even they had not was able to come to an agreement on the matter.
It reflects how sensitive everything about the hijab is in Hindu-majority India, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Lawmakers from his Hindu nationalist party have been accused of inciting violence against India’s 200 million Muslims, the country’s largest minority.
But Modi’s Hindu conservatives are defending Muslim protesters in Iran.
Accused of anti-Muslim discrimination at home, Hindu nationalists voice support for Iranian women
The protests in Iran fit a popular narrative among many of India’s Hindu majority: that the hijab is an example of “radical Islam”, a tool to control women and a slippery slope towards clerical control.
“Since 9/11, the first thing you see with the arrival of radical Islam is the attire,” columnist Tavleen Singh told a recent newscast. “Anytime men decide what women should wear, it’s wrong. The hijab…is supposed to be a political weapon.”
Singh comes from a Sikh family. She was an early supporter of Modi who later wrote a book about how she became disenchanted with him.
But his views on women’s dress resonate with Modi supporters, who fear Islamist influence in India and point out that Indian authorities are not alone in trying to restrict the hijab. Islamic face coverings, but not headscarves, are also banned in France.
“Any attempt to veil women in the name of religion, even if it starts with a headscarf, should be seen as a sign of religious fundamentalism and a future where full veiling will be compulsory by law,” says Swati. Goel Sharma, author of a new book titled The Hijab Debate: Subjugation Sold as Freedom.
That is why she opposes it in Indian public school classes. “It’s like turning the wheels backwards,” she says.
Sharma and her co-author Sanjeev Newar filed a petition against the Muslim schoolgirls’ trial in the high court of Karnataka, a state in southern India.
Many Hindu nationalists see a contradiction in those who support Iranian women removing their hijab while also supporting Indian women who want to keep it.
“Oppose Hijab in Iran. Support Hijab in India. Liberal gangster hypocrisy!” CT Ravi, National General Secretary of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted last month.
Muslim women say it’s a matter of choice
But many women on the left and right in India say it misses the point. It’s not about the hijab, they say. It’s a question of choice.
“In Iran, the state is interfering with women’s rights – women’s choice – to decide what to wear and what not to wear. And that is exactly the problem faced by Muslim girls in schools in Karnataka” , says Samar. Ali, general secretary of the student union at Hyderabad University of English and Foreign Languages in southern India.
Ali, who wears the hijab, alleges hypocrisy in another direction. If you stand for the choice of Iranian women, she says, you must do the same for the girls of Karnataka. Those who don’t have “double standards,” she says.
“It’s obvious how biased these people are. Even the media in India are portraying the protests in Iran as simply anti-hijab,” Ali said. “But more than that, it’s about women’s fundamental right to choose.”
Both parties denounce the media coverage of the issue. Those on the right say Western media coverage has unfairly celebrated Karnataka’s high school girls. And they accuse Indian Muslim groups of being relatively quiet about the protests in Iran.
But everyone seems to agree on one thing: when Bollywood celebrities step in, they get way too covered up.
Bollywood actress comments on Iran – and gets beaten up online
On October 7, Indian movie star Priyanka Chopra condemned the death in Iranian custody of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by the country’s so-called vice squad for not wearing the hijab properly. Chopra said she was “intimidated” by the Iranian protests that followed.
“Voices speaking after centuries of enforced silence will rightly erupt like a volcano! And they will not and MUST NOT be stemmed,” the actor wrote on Instagram.
She was quickly vilified for this and was inundated with accusations of hypocrisy.
Nabiya Khan, an Indian Muslim poet who wears the hijab, says Chopra has been remarkably quiet about the persecution of minorities in her country.
“We never heard her worrying about mob lynchings, the illegal bulldozing of Muslim homes and the alarming increase in hate crimes against Muslims and Dalits in India,” she says.
This is not the first time that Chopra, a United Nations goodwill ambassador, has faced allegations of hypocrisy.
Two years ago, after expressing her support for Black Lives Matter, observers pointed out that in 2008 she appeared in a series of promotional videos for skin lightening creams in India called White Beauty. She later said she regretted those ads.
The hijab is used as a political tool against governments
How Indians view the anti-hijab movement in Iran largely depends on religion and ideology.
“The right, they would like to vilify Islam. So it’s like ‘You see, we told you it’s oppressive,'” says Debangana Chatterjee, a political scientist at Jain University in Bangalore. “Then there are left-liberals who say choosing women should be a priority.”
What they all lack, Chatterjee says, is a bit of history: In Iran as in India, the hijab was used as a tool for political activism against the government.
Prior to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Muslim veils were “a symbol of resistance against the oppressive regime of the Shah,” Chatterjee wrote in a recent essay for Indian online publication Scroll.in. They were also used by Algerian nationalists against the French, and in 1970s Egypt, she notes. Now they are used by schoolgirls in Karnataka to assert their own agency, Chatterjee says.
“Someone who wears a burqa is not necessarily backward. The idea of repression is not what someone wears, but whether they wear it by choice or not,” she says. “This is what connects India and Iran.”
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