In Iran, demonstrations are continuing against the forced dress code for women. The protests have sparked great excitement in India, particularly among Hindutva supporters. They believe that this development vindicates their position that Muslim women should not wear the hijab in public places and that enforcing this idea will protect Indians from the sight of this garment, which they claim is retrograde and anti-woman. What they do not understand is that the protests of Iranian women are not directed not against the hijab per se.
The real issue is women fighting to take back control over their own bodies. It is a question not only of women dispensing with the hijab should they choose to but also the manner in which they can dress, whether they can use lipstick and nail polish in public.
Iranian women are battling attempts by a totalitarian state to decide how a woman should present herself in public. In this case, the totalitarian ideology is in couched in the language of an Islam, which the state propagates.
But in India, these protests in Iran are being used by another totalitarian political party and the state it rules to make decisions about the way Muslim women should appear in public spaces. In Iran, it is an Islamic totalisation of the lives of women. In India, it is a Hindutva totalisation. The only difference is that in Iran the state describes itself as Islamic but in India Hindutva supporters claim it is secular. Hindutva supporters are deceptively using the Iran protests to justify their attempt to “secularise” the public image of Muslim women.
The shallowness of the claim that they wanted Muslim women to dress in a uniform manner in educational institutions became apparent again last week when a photograph was posted on social media of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with a young girl wearing a hijab. Both the girl and Gandhi were trolled.
Some said that the girl’s parents were fundamentalists who had sexualized her by making her wear the hijab. In this attack, Muslim-hating “nationalists” found unlikely support from a section of progressives who think that Rahul Gandhi is committing political suicide by posing with a Muslim girl in a hijab. They claimed that the message presented by such images would not be helpful at a time when thousands of women in Iran are protesting against the hijab mandate and the Supreme Court of India is hearing a petition relating to the hijab being banned in educational institutions in Karnataka.
All this provides fuel to the Hindutva project that seeks to make Muslims invisible in public spaces. By invoking the protests in Iran, Hindutva supporters claim that they are exposing the hypocrisy of those who support the right of hijab-clad students in Karnataka to go to college in their veils. By doing so, Hindutva supporters are actually exposing their strong-armed attempts to impose their own narrow vision on others.
The act of forcing someone to don a piece of cloth to implement a religious code is obscene. It curtails an individual’s right to free speech and expression. It seeks to take away their right to construct their body image as they choose to.
But the act of forcibly disrobing people is just as shocking. Those who compel people to wear certain types of clothing and those who forcibly unclothe people both deploy the same shield of culture. While the theocrats in Iran are claiming that making women to wear the hijab safeguards the public from having to confront immodesty, supporters of the hijab ban in India are aiming to protect their eyes from being hurt by the sight of visible religious markers worn by Muslim women.
This Hindutva campaign is not limited to the clothes worn by Muslim women. It is one weapon in an expanding arsenal aimed at erasing visible Muslimness in public spaces in India. The campaign against Muslims praying in designated public spaces in Gurugram is evidence of this. So too is the abuse of the law machinery against Muslim men in Uttar Pradesh having a picnic in a boat in Prayagraj. Why should people be banned from eating meat in a river that is sacred to another group of people? Isn’t a river a public resource that belongs equally to all people?
While the official Iranian gaze frowns on all things deemed un-Islamic, the official Indian gaze is offended by anything Muslim. Until a few years ago, Muslim men with long beards were not an object of suspicion in the public eye, people offering namaz inside a railway station were not viewed with a criminal lens, and nobody was forced to stop wearing a hijab.
Critics may argue that these anxieties about the visibility of non-majoritarian cultural symbols are old. But even they will have agree that the culture of taking offence at the smallest public display of Muslim faith has become deep-seated in India today.
In this context, it is worth recalling the charged scene from Karnataka’s Mandya in February when a lone Muslim woman named Muskan was menaced by a mob of young Hindutva supporters for entering her college complex wearing a hijab. One can understand why she responded by shouting a religious slogan: after all, the mob’s only demand was that she renounce her religion in public spaces. Muskan’s assertion of existence was in no way less brave than the protests of the women of Iran against the mandatory hijab.
Though the contexts of the protests in Iran and India are different, women in both countries are making the same statement. They are telling the state that they want to live their lives as free, thinking individuals – not as dull identical clones. In both cases, it is a battle between individuals and the state for ownership of the self.
Misappropriating the language of either struggle disempowers the protestors and will only intensify their oppression.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi in Delhi University. Alishan Jafri is a journalist.