It has become almost a weekly affair. One after the other, Iranian women are throwing off the veil, mostly in what appears to be a well-publicised performance. Such publicity is not just aimed at the outside world so that they know that the Iranian religious regime has failed its women but also directed inside towards other women who might be willing to do the same but lack the required conviction or strength.
Women in Iran were the torchbearers of the revolution: they marched ahead of their men to throw off the dictatorial Shah and his corrupt regime. The expectation was that the revolution will bring more freedoms to the people, both men and women alike. But much to their chagrin, Muslim women today realise that the Islamic revolution utterly failed them. Although they have much more freedoms as compared to women in many other Muslim countries, but the law requires them to be covered at all public spaces and treats them like children and commodities; prohibiting them from enjoying the normal rights of citizenship.
The very fact that there are Iranian Mullahs who are shouting from the rooftops, periodically, against this decline of ‘Islamic values’ is proof enough that the old regime is tottering.
Once again, it is the women who are the leading force of this change. The regime knows that once the demands for rights start, it does not stop at just one set of rights. So we have men who are now supporting the rights of women to throw off the veil. We have other political actors who are demanding greater political transparency in the way in which elections are conducted in Iran and all of them have lent their support to the women’s cause.
The recent announcement from the top leadership that they are considering a referendum to decide the necessity of the veil is just a big nonsense. Either they are really seriously thinking about the issue of women’s freedom or they just want to manipulate the referendum to their advantage. The idea of a referendum itself is problematic because when basic rights are at stake, we do not need a referendum. The freedom of women in Muslim societies is a basic right and therefore should be non-negotiable.
Feminists who defend the veil have much to learn from these Iranian women. Of late there has emerged a discourse in the west which tries to defend almost all the regressive practices within Muslim society in the name of diversity and pluralism. The cultural otherness of the Muslims therefore becomes a value which needs to be defended at all costs. The problem with this form of political correctness is that it de-humanizes those whom it seeks to defend. Who are the western feminists to defend the Burqa when it is under attack by Muslim women themselves? Also, western liberals fail to understand that Burqa or the veil is mostly forced on Muslim women by Muslim men. Even if it is not forced then young girls as little as eight are encouraged to wear them as a sign of modesty. After they grow up, they do not know any other way to dress because the Burqa becomes part of their flesh.
There is a very miniscule section of Muslim women who wear the veil out of their choice and that choice should be defended and respected. Making laws against it will never help. But to defend the Burqa as a religious and cultural marker of Muslim culture is simply erroneous to say the least.
But this is not just the story of Iranian women. Women all across the Islamic world are supposed to cover themselves ‘appropriately’.
This covering up is mostly dictated by the cultural traditions of different places which can range from the veil to the chador to the Saudi-Talibani Burqa. But in all cases, it is legitimized by arguing that it has been commanded by Allah in the Quran. The problem again is that we need to understand how just one interpretation of Islam becomes the dominant narrative within Muslim societies.
The Quran and the verse which supposedly commands Muslim women to cover themselves have been interpreted variously. One interpretation is that the verse specifically refers to cover the bosom which was supposedly left bare during the times of pre-Islamic Arabia. Thus the express command of the Quran is to cover the breasts and not to cover up everything from head to toe. Commentators of the Quran tell us over and over again that the text of the Quran is transparent and obvious. If that is the case then why it is that the Quranic verse in this case did not give the express command of covering the face or the head or the hair? According to one interpretation, the verse in Quran clearly stipulates only the covering of the breast.
Yet another interpretation talks of the veil to understand it not as a piece of garment but as a boundary between the public and the private. The particular verse is interpreted as signifying the separation of spaces where the normative behaviour expected of Muslims should be different. Rather than being a separation between male and female, it is more of an exhortation to respect the private sphere such as the domestic household. Such interpretations never become the normative understanding because the conservative Ulama have institutional control of Islamic societies.
But then we must also ask what if the Quran had actually mandated the wearing of the veil or the Burqa? Should Muslims then blindly follow what is written in the scriptures? ‘Modesty’ of dress, particularly for women, is common to all Semitic religions. There is even the mention of chastity belts for Christian women. But then, these communities have since consigned such commands to the dustbins of history. Shouldn’t Muslims not march with the tune of history and proclaim that these verses have become redundant today as they do not suit the needs of the contemporary times? Iranian women possibly have started to articulate such a view. When will the rest of the Muslim world follow up?
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com