The problem of women's dress codes in Islamic countries is not straight forward.
Solutions are similarly complicated.
The Koran instructs Muslim women to be modest in their dress partly to publicly identify with Islam and partly to avoid sexual assault. Since 630 CE, we have come to understand that the sexual assault of women is not caused by how sexy they look but by male control issues. Human rights groups and feminists universally advise that placing responsibility on the prospective victim is a counter-productive approach to reducing sexual assaults.
If the object of Islamic modesty is to protect women, it’s not working. Sexual harassment is prevalent in the Muslim world, even in Mecca during the Hajj. The modesty rules of Islam do nothing to stop sexual harassment of women and sometimes make things worse.
In fact, there is almost a directly proportional relationship between a country’s legal dress codes and women’s rights. While women should feel free to wear whatever they like, freedom means nothing if governments punish women for not wearing particular items for supernatural reasons.
A quick tour of Afghanistan
The black burqa has never been a part of traditional Afghan culture. It is a recent imposition by Islamic fundamentalists on the women of Afghanistan. Some women insist that they are honouring their Islamic values by following the hijab rules. However, the Koran says nothing at all about burqas. It only mentions the khimar (veil) and the jilbab (dress).
The Taliban’s “strict interpretation of Sharia” is not just about controlling women. It seeks to eliminate the feminine anywhere a man cannot directly control it. Earlier this year, the Taliban ordered women to wear the burqa or “stay at home”. In December, the Taliban banned women from universities.
Any explanation for the compulsory burqa which involves serving the interests of women is repudiated by the fact that the Taliban “have institutionalized oppression against women” at every level of society.
A quick tour of Iran
In 1936, the Shah ran a fascist government in Iran. He passed a law called Kashf-e hijab banning all Islamic veils. This was part of a larger effort to Westernise the country. Police officers beat women, tore their headscarves and chadors off and forcibly searched their homes.
In 1983, the Ayatollah Khomeini ran a theocratic government in Iran. He passed a law which made Islamic veils mandatory for all women. Women who violate that law can be jailed or fined for appearing in public without the hijab.
Accordingly, two patriarchal Iranian governments managed to come to completely opposite conclusions about the hijab. Nonetheless, they uniformly removed the agency of all Iranian women.
A 2020 survey, in line with previous surveys, showed that 72% of the population opposed the compulsory hijab. This figure must include some hijabis. This September, after the morality police beat a woman to death, many brave Iranian women risked their lives to protest. Regardless, demonstrations are ongoing. In response, the government has assured protestors they are “working” on whether the law needs to change.
Any explanation for the compulsory hijab which involves serving the interests of women is repudiated by the fact that the women in Iran “continue to be treated as second class citizens”.
Oppressive or empowering?
For many women who live where not wearing the hijab has serious political or social consequences, the hijab will be a symbol of oppression and violence. In these places, the correct response for those of us interested in freedom and justice is to support women who choose not to wear the hijab.
In Iran, the law mentioned above states that women “who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab, shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of fifty thousand to five hundred Rials.”
For many women who live where wearing the hijab has serious political or social consequences, the hijab will be a symbol of defiance and empowerment. In these places, the correct response for those of us interested in freedom and justice is to support women who choose to wear the hijab.
Earlier this year in India, women were refused entry to their classrooms because they were wearing hijabs. Meanwhile, groups of men harass women for how they choose to dress by shouting Hindutva (Hindu fascism) slogans.
In this video, one very brave girl screams “Allahu Akbar” to defend herself against a Hindutva mob. Undeniably, there is a political context here that matters. The relationship of India with its Muslim population could be expressed as a series of massacres.
It’s otiose to pretend there’s no context to anything and if some ex-Muslim (and Muslim) women understandably hate the hijab, then it must necessarily be always stupid and dangerous or if some Muslim women embrace the hijab, then it must necessarily be always amazing and empowering. The intersection of religion and politics is never that simple.