After two months of intense and sometimes heartbreaking protests, the Iranian government has reportedly decided to disband its Gasht-e-Ershad “guidance patrols”, a police division. These patrols engaged in literal moral policing, enforcing state-mandated dress codes for women, particularly of hair coverings. The distinctive green and white vans they had operated are said to no longer patrol; however, the government has not confirmed the suspension.
Whether the law that makes hijabs for women and girls compulsory will also be scrapped remains to be seen, but the end of the Gasht-e-Ershad is a partial win. That is, if new methods to enforce compliance are not brought in. Until the law itself is gone, or replaced by one that safeguards personal choice in clothing, the danger of new types of enforcement remains. Reports say the law, which dates to 1983, is being reviewed.
The powerful protests – which sparked after what is believed to have been the institutional murder of 22-year old Mahsa Amini following her arrest by the Gasht-e-Ershad for not wearing a hijab – have shown how vital personal freedom in the area of apparel is. Fashion is not frivolous. It can be self-expression when one chooses; it can be oppression when one cannot.
Photographs of women in Iran from before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that show them as mini-skirted, open-haired global citizens are popular vintage images. The provenance of their attire may have been Western, but the principle of freedom should be universal, even if not cultural. Not everything that originates in one’s culture is worth preserving, or to use a word that has gained unreflective popularity in some quarters, not everything that originates in one’s culture should be decolonized. Sometimes, imported values are better. To consider India, for example: the homegrown concept of caste, or the deeply-entrenched practices of gender inequity, are both things that are positively impacted by looking at the wider world and discarding what may be familiar but wrong.
When one considers photos of pre-1979 Iranian women, or photos of the protests now in 2022, one notes that only 43 years are between them. Among today’s protestors are senior citizens who experienced the curtailing of their rights. Their children and grandchildren, born into that curtailing, are there too. Some long for a freedom they have never fully tasted – which tells us that freedom is an intrinsically human desire, more intrinsically a part of us than rules and systems created by the few to control the many.
While many may have chosen hijabs, and still would, many also did not, and would not. Neither choice should be made on behalf of an individual.
When an ultraconservative regime takes the reins, anywhere in the world and at any time, drastic and painful societal change happens without mass approval (propaganda will always make it appear otherwise). Being able to leave depends on luck or privilege. Most people always stay. For many but not for all, this would be through further layers of choicelessness.
At the antipode of fundamentalism are fundamental freedoms. Whether about the hijab or about food or about love – a basic respect for another’s right to choose is what ultimately safeguards one’s own.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in December 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.