For just under two weeks, protests against the hijab have spilled over onto the streets of Tehran, with women burning their hijabs and chopping off their hair. The protests, which have reportedly claimed at least 76 lives across Iran, have been directed against Iran’s infamous morality police and the country’s theocratic regime.

The flashpoint was the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini on September 16 after she was allegedly assaulted in custody for wearing her hijab “inappropriately”.

The word “inappropriate” is already detested for its unruly impositions on women’s lives. That apart, it is essential to recognise that the hijab – despite being a bone of contention in several parts of the world – has different implications in different settings.

For instance, it does not have the same meaning in Muslim-majority Islamic Republic of Iran as it does in Muslim-minority India. Specific historical and socio-political contexts are important when trying to understand the demonstrations by women in Iran who are demanding the removal of the law making the garment compulsory and the agitations in Karnataka where college students protested to be allowed into class wearing the veil.

Of course, the hijab may simply be considered an article of clothing and a sartorial choice. Yet, due to its association with Islam, it has long been in the eye of a political storm. While the Arabic word “hijab” indicates segregation, the garment is mainly associated with an idea of modesty. It also communicates a statement on identity.

Though the hijab offers bodily coverage and concealment, it also enacts a political spectacle relating to the visible of Muslim women. In Iran, the genesis of the political storm over the hijab can be traced back to 1936 when an edict was issued banning all veiling practices. The Western-influenced Kashf-e hijab decree – which means “unveiling” – issued by Reza Shah Pahlavi’s regime forced women to abandon the hijab or else keep away from public view.

Many women gave up the traditional Iranian chador, or cloak but instead began to wear the manteau (a long jacket) with a rusari (headscarf), which provided a functional sense of modesty.

In no time, though, the veil became a symbol of resistance against the oppressive Shah regime. Even women who otherwise would not have worn the garment came out on the streets with their heads covered in solidarity with those who had chosen to be veiled.

Women protesting during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Credit: Khabar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

After the Pahlavi regime was unseated by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the clerics who took over soon imposed compulsory veiling for Iran’s women, citing “moral cleansing”. As a retort to the Shah’s regime, constructing a code relating to women’s modesty became necessary. Modesty was redefined in the name of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.

The measures of repression remained unchanged for both regimes, with the moral police of the Islamic rules taking the place of the Shah’s secret police. No matter how Westernised or Islamic the regime under which they live, Iranian women have been stuck between a rock and a hard place.

In India, the debate around the hijab has been raging since January after educational institutions in Karnataka began barring students from wearing the headscarf. On September 22, the Indian Supreme Court reserved its verdict on a petition challenging a Karnataka High Court order that upheld the state government’s ban on hijabs in educational institutions.

The idea of the hijab in India has been merged with the image of the Muslim “other” – a dreaded figure located in the country’s communal history and minority politics.

Students talk to police personnel after they were told to take off their hijabs before entering the college campus, at Shivamogga in February. Credit: PTI.

The perceived threat posed by Muslims is embodied in material form in the hijab. Frustrations and hostility against Muslims can easily be channelised against the garment. This is the context in which the controversy over the hijab in India should be understood.

In the Karnataka hijab debate, religiosity became the point of focus rather than women’s right to education. Advocates of the ban have expressed the desire for uniformity in the classroom. But little has been said about the sudden imposition of a dress code, a code the protesting Muslim students did not sign up for while seeking admission to these colleges.

How fair is it to breach an existing contract? It is a breach that refuses Muslim women their right to study.

Be it Iran or India, the question is not whether one is for or against the hijab. It is how state regimes – irrespective of ideology – attempt to control women’s bodies and try to dictate how they should live their lives.

Debangana Chatterjee is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education, JAIN (Deemed-to-be University) in Bengaluru.