Enforcing The Headscarf Is Not A Matter Of Cultural Choice – It Is An Attack Against Women

I am a woman who was born in a Muslim-majority country and I have resisted the pressure of the headscarf for my whole life. The issue of the headscarf is personal for me, and, like many others, I am following the protests in Iran. The spark caused by the Iranian morality police’s killing of Jina Amini, better known in the press as Mahsa Amini, after she was detained for not properly wearing her headscarf, has enflamed hundreds of thousands of candles in Iran, and these honorable, noble, bright candles continue to burn with all their might to illuminate Iran, though some may be burnt to the wick for the sake of this illumination. I believe with my whole heart and reason that sufficient light will penetrate the darkness.

Some Muslim women with whom I have spoken about the protests and who themselves wear the headscarf have made extremely shallow comments normalizing the situation. They say: “The requirement of the headscarf in Iran is very light – anyway you can see the women’s hair. It is enough if they just wrap their scarf so that it covers half of their hair. Let them do this little thing, what is the problem?” The issue here is not the shari’a-compliant manner of wearing the headscarf. It is how the governments and societies of many countries today utterly disregard the individual bodily inviolability of women and seek to shape those women according to their own beliefs, and for this purpose apply punishments that include death. We have grown so accustomed to the requirement of the headscarf that we have lost perspective of how truly bizarre it is. To view the absurdity of this situation objectively, one need only imagine a government that killed men because they violated a hypothetical injunction that “men must always wear blue socks.”

As a woman who was born and lived for 27 years in a Muslim-majority country I can say this with certainty: The crushing majority of women in those countries who wear the headscarf do not do so willingly. Girls in those countries are forced, either by their families or by society, to wear the headscarf. After all this pressure, most women who wear the headscarf say that they do so “because I want to.” I have never seen a single woman who wore the headscarf without psychological pressure, physical violence, or both from their own parents, other family members, or other adults. In such families, the lightest form of pressure is, as the girl is growing up, to speak as though it is assumed, it is a given, that in the future the girl will wear the headscarf, and to convey the message often that if she does not do so, she will not have her family’s approval or love. The heaviest forms of pressure include direct insult, physical violence, and not allowing the girl to leave the house.

Unfortunately, I was born as the youngest girl in a family in which wearing the headscarf was viewed as an absolute and unquestionable requirement. My mother and my five sisters all started wearing the headscarf when they were children. As I was growing up, I saw from the closest proximity the pressure on my sisters from our family and from society. When the time came the same pressure was put on me. From my childhood, my family spoke as though it was a certainty, taken for granted, that I would wear the headscarf like my sisters do, and implied that if I did not, my family would not accept me. When they saw that I was openly resisting this pressure, they started forcing me to go to courses to study the Quran.

When I was in my early teens, our neighbors and relatives added to this pressure. They said that the ordinary blue jeans and t-shirts that I wore were not suitable for “a moral girl,” that my arms down to my wrists should not be visible, that my jeans showed the shape of my body. They made thinly veiled insults, asked often when I was going to wear the headscarf, and gave endless speeches about how “a moral woman must wear the headscarf.”

In high school, the molestation and harassment on the street – either verbal or physical, mostly in the form of nonconsensual touching in crowded settings – was added to all of this. The perpetrators were men, most of whom were older than 40, who thought that because you did not wear a headscarf, you were an immoral woman open to such things, and so they could touch you. The existence of this perception is a certainty: I know it because I have heard men say it themselves, and because from discussions with the women from the country of my birth that I know, there is a difference in the frequency with which women who wear and do not wear the headscarf experience this molestation and harassment. In fact, in my country there is an expression that everyone knows and that some are shameless enough to say out loud: “A woman without a headscarf is like a house without curtains: either for sale or for rent.” More evidence of this way of thinking can be found in how, in my mother tongue, the shortest way to describe a woman who wears the headscarf is to say that she is “closed,” and the shortest way to describe a woman who does not wear the headscarf is to say that she is “open.” These words are the ordinary and most frequently used descriptive words for this situation: One would say “that woman is open” to say simply that she does not wear the headscarf. However, the secondary implications of promiscuity suggested in these two words sound the same in my mother tongue as they do in English.

When I went to university, my boyfriend at the time, with whom we were discussing marriage, came to me one day and said: “After we get married I want you to wear the headscarf. My family would not want a bride who does not wear the headscarf.” At the time, I told him: “Up until now, I have not worn the headscarf, despite believing that God wants me to do so, so I am definitely not going to wear it just because you or anybody else wants me to. If one day I decide to wear it, it will be completely because God wants it, not because people do.” I broke up with him in the same conversation, and to this day this remains one of the best things I ever did for myself in my life.

The great majority of women in my country live one by one through the stages and experiences I have described. Some of them resist each of these stages. Unfortunately, the majority of them, at one of these stages or another, cannot resist anymore, and put on the headscarf. Some start wearing it immediately, to please their family. Others do so later, to avoid harassment or the gossip of neighbors and relatives. Still others hold out until they finally give in to please a potential husband. But when asked, nearly all of them will say that they wear the headscarf “because I want to.”

They say this because it is spiritually very painful to think that you have done something out of submission to these people, who think that they have the right to speak authoritatively and make decisions about your body and your personality, which are the two most valuable things that you can ever have. It is much easier to believe you have done that act because you wanted to. I completely respect the choices of women who truly wear the headscarf because they want to. I also understand the helplessness experienced by women who wear the headscarf as a result of pressure, and I do not blame them. For me these women are the victims of male-dominated Muslim societies. My only expectation from them is that they do not pressure their daughters and other women in the same way. They should not continue this chain of tyranny against women, and should instead have it end with them. Others must acknowledge that while a minority of Muslim women wear the headscarf truly because they choose to do so, without pressure from family or society, the majority of women who wear the headscarf do so because they are forced to, whether by their family, by society, or by a government that purports to represent them.

This is the situation in the country of my birth, which is not governed by shari’a, so I can imagine the physical and psychological pressure applied to the women of Iran, which for more than 40 years has been governed by shari’a and whose government has forced women to wear the headscarf. That in this era, those who speak authoritatively in government and society still intervene in the individual bodily inviolability of women, and of their freedom of thought and belief, to attack their rights with pressure and violence, is a shame not only on the countries in which this is the case, but on all humanity. Contrary to what many Westerners may think, these attacks are not a matter of cultural choice; they are simply crimes. A person’s religious belief is binding only on themselves. Muslim societies need to understand that the path to paradise does not pass through tyrannizing women and children.



EDITORS NOTE: This MEMRI column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.


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