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Mahsa Amini was arrested for ‘bad hijab’. But the only ‘bad hijab’ is forced

Recently, unprecedented images have emerged from the streets of Iran: defiant-eyed women ceremoniously cutting their hair in public; headscarves burning in the streets amid plumes of smoke; oceans of anonymous protesters shouting together in a unified chant, all protesting forced hijab laws, now behind the veil of government imposed internet blackouts.

Nearly 20 years ago, during the height of the war on terror, a Muslim schoolgirl in France took a similar action and publicly shaved his head in front of an audience of protesters, international media and press cameras, making global headlines in an era before social media.

Except she was protesting her right to use it.

This is not a contradiction. Muslim women from East and West have been fighting for the same thing for decades: the right to choose.

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Mahsa Amini, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, sparked a national outcry when the 22-year-old died in police custody in Tehran on September 16. Amini was arrested and beaten by Iran’s “morality police,” the government agency used to enforce mandatory hijab rules, for “bad hijab,” or what they considered inappropriate dress. While the “morality police” claims to be a spiritual authority, the reality is that it is a government invention with no theological existence in Islam that manipulates religion to assert control over people. In Iran, the morality police use the hijab as a tool to essentially diminish Iranian women from public space, intimidating women across the country into staying home.

a woman talking while cutting her ponytail

Nasibe Samsaei, an Iranian woman living in Turkey, cuts her ponytail during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on September 21, 2022.

YASIN AKGUL//fake images
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Although commonly equated to the veil, hijab it is the universal concept of modesty applied to both the Islamic lifestyle of men and women. Although the veil is a physical practice of hijab, it is meant to be applied to all facets of life, from your attitude to your actions and even your way of thinking, with the purpose of promoting compassion and sanctifying personal autonomy. For example, the first requirement of physical hijab is the hadith of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to “lower one’s eyes”, placing responsibility on one’s personal actions first, rather than blaming or interfering with the someone else’s hijab. At its spiritual foundation, the core of hijab is personal choice: the only “good hijab” is the one with intention; the only “bad hijab” is the one that is forced.

That is why, at the same time that Iranian women are fighting with their lives for their right to remove their veils, Indian women are fighting for their right to keep them. This March, in the face of rising Hindu nationalism and widespread anti-Muslim violence, an Indian court upheld a policy allowing schools in Karnataka state to ban the hijab, prompting attacks on Indian Muslim women and girls. In 2021, Muslim women launched viral social networks hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab after French officials voted to ban young Muslim women and girls from wearing the hijab in public.

a protester with a sign saying hijab is our constitutional right

Indian Muslim students protest against the hijab ban in some schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka on March 24, 2022.

Anadolu Agency//fake images
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The truth is that the laws that force Muslim women to wear or remove their veils represent two sides of the same coin: controlling Muslim women’s right to choose. Hijab laws have nothing to do with religion or secularism. At best, they are a form of state-sanctioned sexual harassment; at worst, they represent the systemic subjugation of Muslim women, no matter what society they exist in.

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Mahsa Amini and many others have lost their lives to Iran’s hijab laws; Countless more are risking their lives by taking to the streets and expressing themselves on social media. But his fight for freedom is no exception. It is time we had nuanced conversations about the hijab and the way it has been used as a tool and litmus test for how we view Muslim women. The worst that can happen is that the world responds to the bravery of Iranian women by using it to oppress Muslim women in other parts of the world under the guise of liberation.

As the United States grapples with its own war over women’s bodies in the form of abortion rights, it is clear that the desire to control women transcends religion, political ideology, and even cultural spheres. Now Iranian women are beating the drum, calling on women around the world to reclaim a revolutionary truth: Our bodies are on our terms.

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