Sanctions could hurt Iranian women who remove hijab in protest

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In recent weeks, the world has seen Iranian women take to the streets and protest the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the “morality police”, compulsory hijab laws and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Every day, Iranians – inside and outside Iran – are posting new images and videos of the protests and asking the world to amplify the voices of those chanting, “Women, Life, Freedom!” Brave Iranian women engage in civil disobedience by shopping and dining in restaurants while being exposed.

In response, the United States extended sanctions against Iran, and some politicians and pundits demanded even more. Since 1979, however, the severity and breadth of sanctions imposed by the United States have had a deadly impact. The sanctions limit Iran’s ability to purchase essential medical devices, supplies and raw materials needed, for example, to manufacture drugs. Meanwhile, the sanctions have helped create conditions in which mainstream Iranian businesses are unable to compete with state-affiliated businesses. Women and working-class Iranians are among the most vulnerable to the impact of the sanctions. This means there is a real danger in the way recent images of undisclosed Iranian women are being used to argue for additional sanctions and interventions.

It would not be the first time that depictions of Muslim women have been used to legitimize harmful foreign interventions. In the 19th century, for example, the French deployed images of oppressed Muslim women as a tool to popularize the colonization of Algeria, the confiscation of Algerian lands and institutions, and the continuation of warfare during the Algerian War of Independence. . Although historical and geographical contexts differ, revisiting the history of Algeria reminds us of how ideas about the emancipation of oppressed Muslim women appealed to global audiences. States used these ideas to build popular support for foreign interventions that ultimately harmed the women they claimed to want to save. This story reminds us to question these representations of Muslim women more critically.

Under French rule from 1830 to 1962, Algeria occupied an important role in the French overseas empire as one of its oldest colonies and the only colony officially considered an extension of the France rather than a colony. From the start of the French colonial occupation of Algeria, postcards played an important role in increasing popular support for the French colonial project.

Photographs on postcards tended to depict Muslim women in two ways: heavily covered or shockingly uncovered (often with nudity). Some 19th century postcards depicted Algerian women walking the streets in their traditional long white veils (haïks) and a baggy harem pants. Others showed Algerian women with their veils open, revealing their faces, breasts and bodies to the viewer. While the images of Algerian women exposing themselves to the viewer were taken in photographers’ studios for payment or under duress, they were captioned and marketed in such a way as to suggest that they were everyday photographs of Algerian women.

These depictions of Algerian women drew on a longer tradition of 18th and 19th century European art, in which paintings of nondescript houses, harems and slave markets featured exotic and sexy Muslim women visibly constrained both by their physical environment (the harem, for example) or the tight control of husbands and fathers. Postcards made these scholarly images readable and accessible to a wider working-class European audience. Their cheapness and ubiquity meant they could be widely circulated between Algeria and Europe – cementing without a word French fantasies to be seen under the veils of terribly downtrodden but also seductive Muslim women.

The European obsession with the oppression of Muslim women extended beyond art and material culture. Claims to Muslim sexuality have been used as a legal basis to legitimize the confiscation of Algerian land, wealth and institutions. French officials alleged, for example, that Muslim family customs, including polygamy, were incompatible with French laws, so French citizenship could not be extended to Muslim subjects. Such claims also justified separate legal systems for European settlers and Algerian subjects.

Images of subjugated Muslim women remained central to the French colonial project until its last gasping breaths. On November 1, 1954, the Algerian War of Independence began when the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) launched 70 attacks against various political and military targets across Algeria. In response, the French military’s psychological warfare office launched unveiling campaigns and veil-burning ceremonies to demonstrate to international audiences that France was emancipating and modernizing women as part of a larger project. For the French, it was particularly symbolic because they had made the veil a symbol of backwardness. In cities like Algiers, while many Muslim women no longer veil, some have started donning the haik in response to these French campaigns as a means of insisting on their right to their own religion and culture. After Algerian independence in 1962, few women still wore the traditional haik, but he was still celebrated as a symbol of national culture.

The story of how ideas about gender and Islam were weaponized in colonial Algeria remains relevant today. The obsession with the veil as a marker of constraint is neither unique to France nor simply over. In October 2001, then-Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (DN.Y.) appeared on the US House floor in a burqa to call for war on the Taliban to save Afghan women. In November 2001, First Lady Laura Bush took over the President’s weekly radio address to frame the war in Afghanistan as a fight to ensure Afghan women can live freely. In August 2017, President Donald Trump decided to recommit more troops to Afghanistan after seeing a photo of Afghan women wearing miniskirts in 1972.

In recent weeks, people around the world have celebrated images of Iranian women bravely defying Iran’s mandatory hijab laws. The protesters made it clear, through chants, slogans and graffiti, that they were not protesting against the hijab or Islam, but rather against the imposition of hijab laws and against the Islamic Republic itself. . A photograph from Iran shows an unveiled woman and a woman in a black chador holding hands and raising their fists in the air, facing an Iranian flag, with the caption: ‘No woman is free until all women are not free to choose”. Another graffitied message in Iran refers to Iran’s own history with a forced unveiling by a former imperial leader and reads: “No to forced hijab or forbidden hijab of Reza Shah”. Videos show how veiled women in black chadors parade among the demonstrators.

Like colonial postcards, while social media facilitates the mass and rapid consumption of images, they cannot convey important context both about Iran and the longer global history of representations of Muslim women. The way images of undisclosed Iranian women are consumed risks reproducing the same misogynistic assumptions that the veil is a universal marker of oppression – even potentially legitimizing foreign intervention, ranging from increased sanctions to war. Iranian women, like all Muslim women, deserve to live without their free will being restricted, either by an Islamic regime or by foreign intervention.

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