It should be a simple thing, what one chooses to wear or not wear. Fabric isn’t a weapon. If you don’t like seeing a garment on another person, look away. If you don’t like not seeing a garment on another person, look away. When we say “person”, it’s important to acknowledge that queer people and cis-women are disproportionately affected by wardrobe policing. Societally as well as structurally, wardrobe policing is deeply linked to seizing control over bodily autonomy and sexuality, and by extension reproductive freedom and freedom itself. Dozens of people have died in ongoing protests in Iran against laws that enforce the wearing of the hijab, which covers the head as per Islamic mores. The protests began after 22 year-old Mahsa Amini was killed by police for not covering all of her hair as per government regulations. Since then, people across Iran have burnt their hijabs, cut their hair and stood up against larger oppressive forces that regard head-covering as symbolic of requisite submission.
The world is watching, but not necessarily perceiving. French celebrities who have shared footage of themselves cutting off inches of their hair have rightly been called out for performative behaviour. These actions do not address Islamophobia within their country, and potentially encourage it (France has laws against face-coverings). At least one Indian woman, a non-celebrity, has gone on social media to mimic this; it may not be long before some Indian celebrities begin to do the same. Actor Priyanka Chopra, known for being vocal about progressive values abroad while being either silent on issues within India or indicating rightwing alignment, was also called out for unreflexively expressing support for Iranian protestors.
Among the unreflexively ignored or dismissed issues – and the most directly relevant here – is the fight of students in Karnataka to wear hijabs and burqas. The shadow ban on the same, which came into effect in February and was worded as having to do with conforming to institutional dress codes, has had a detrimental impact on women’s education in the state, and by extension all aspects of personal and collective empowerment. Through forcing students to drop out or undress, it has truncated the dreams of many.
One’s socio-political integrity and ability to parse contextual nuance can be gauged through one’s reaction to the hijab issue in India and abroad. This is a scenario in which there actually is a single correct reaction: i.e. to desire that whether one wears it or not should not be policed by the authorities. Full stop.
To reiterate: the ongoing protests in Iran are against laws that enforce the wearing of the hijab, and punishments for disobeying the same. The coverings themselves are a matter of personal choice. That choice may be influenced by family customs, peer pressure, social media and other factors, but the same can be said for the choice to not cover the head. To respect choice is to also respect fluidity. A person may be raised to wear the hijab, then choose not to, or may embrace it as a consenting adult despite it not having been a norm in their upbringing. The basic right, either way, is the same.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in October 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.