The raging protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, who had been detained for allegedly breaking strict hijab rules, represent a unique moment in the history of the twenty-first-century’s Middle East. The brave Iranian women unintendedly upended decades of an orchestrated Islamist PR campaign of legitimising and glamorising enforced hijab.
For decades, Islamists, including many apologists of the Iranian regime, used various forms of mental and physical bullying to force Muslim women to cover their hair while also gaslighting anyone who questioned their claims of authority.
In my native country, Al Azhar has cast wearing hijab as mandatory for Muslim women despite there being no law enforcing hijab. Several Islamist websites and preachers promote slogans such as “My Hijab is my virtue”. Even the recent brutal slaughter of the student Naira Ashraf did not reduce the zeal of Islamists, who blamed her — the victim — for not wearing hijab, triggering huge debates in Egypt, as Hany Ghoraba wrote.
A few months ago, in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour [wearing hijab], Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani claimed that “[wearing] hijab is not compulsory, but it is an Islamic order that everyone should implement”. Now, as the world watches, Afghani women are being brutally mistreated as well as denied work and education as a result of the Taliban’s takeover last year.
Moreover, in Western countries, glamorising hijab has been ongoing since decades. Even Playboy magazine published an article about the first “hijabi” news anchor in American TV history. Meanwhile, questioning hijab authenticity and enforcement has been framed as “Islamophobia”. For years, Iran regime apologists trivialised the trauma of hijab, as Vahid Yucesoy aptly highlighted.
But the death of Mahsa Amini has changed everything.
Commentators who downplayed the impact of enforced hijab have changed their tune. Today, CNN’s Christiane Amanpourdeclined an interview with Iranian President Raisi, and the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s notorious morality police and senior officials for the violence carried out against protesters and the death of Mahsa Amini.
The visual impact of the scenes in Iran has extended to the Arab world too. Arabic media outlets have felt the wind of change. The death of Mahsa Amini and resulting protests in Iran are now top headlines, with Arab audiences watching daily as Iranian women from all age groups remove their hijab and challenge the regime policy. The visual impact of the Iranian defiance should not be downplayed and undoubtedly will unhinge many Islamist groups and preachers.
Iranian women are making history. They are teaching the world — including the Muslim world — about the glaring difference between opting to wear hijab and being forced to wear it, whether by law or due to social pressure and mental bullying. Finally, non-hijabi women are not afraid to proudly defy their Islamist oppressors. Regardless of the future of the regime in Iran, the discourse about the veil has changed. The era of shaming Muslim women for not wearing the hijab is over. Our hair is now a flag of honour and a symbol of freedom.