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White Feminism Has Appropriated the Hijab Protest, Without Understanding It

Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour
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A woman wearing a hijab waits at Ben Gurion Airport
A woman wearing a hijab waits at Ben Gurion AirportCredit: David Bachar
Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour

They march with strength and courage in the streets of their homeland, the streets that in the past two weeks have become extremely dangerous for them. They shout, “We’ll die for Iran,” “Death to the dictator,” and “Women, life, freedom.” And still many people, including in the Western media, are brazenly reducing the protest of the Iranian women to a battle against wearing the hijab.

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It’s a political and feminist error to treat the protest of the Iranian women as a protest only against wearing the hijab, because their protest is broader than that. First, the Iranian women are not protesting against the hijab but against its being forced on them. They are protesting against its politicization and against the violent use being made of it in order to exclude them physically and mentally from the public space.

They are protesting the profound, systematic and violent gender apartheid, which is based on a system of religious sharia law – forcing them to wear the hijab is only one of its flagrant and sexist characteristics. Therefore, both the Arab and Western feminist discourse focus on that instead of discussing the mechanisms that support and enable the continuation of this system. The same gender apartheid encompasses very broad issues such as the marriage of minor girls, custody of children, freedom of movement without the approval of a guardian, employment rights and a long list of matrimonial laws that discriminate against Iranian women and subject them to the absolute control of the men. That is what they are protesting.

Second, because the heart of the struggle is not only the hijab itself but what it symbolizes, Iranian women inside and outside Iran are not demanding that their sisters inside and outside the country refuse to wear it, but rather calling for their basic right to choose, demanding their ownership of their bodies and bringing attention to the fact that they are much more than hair.

They want to decide by themselves about their bodies without dictating to other women in other parts of the world, who are fighting for their right to wear the hijab, what to do. In that sense they have understood – as opposed to most of the dominant Western feminist discussion – that blind support for refusing to wear the hijab and on the other hand, blind support for wearing it, are the same thing. Both are denying Iranian and other Muslim women all over the world their ownership of their bodies, and are legitimizing the continued violence against the female Muslim body, which in any case is persecuted and excluded.

When Iranian women burned the hijab, as far as they’re concerned, they burned one of the symbols of the Iranian regime, rather than a Muslim symbol. They are trying to eliminate the coerced connection between the hijab and their morality, and the barrier of estrangement constructed by the regime between them and their collective female body. In that sense they broadcast to all the Muslim women that they’re all on the same side, the side that opposes coercion and gender violence.

When the Iranian women walked in the streets and shouted, "Women, life and freedom,” they were saying outright that they demand total and unconditional freedom and that their struggle is broader than the issue of being forced to wear the hijab. Therefore, limiting the Iranian women’s struggle to a demand to stop enforcing the hijab not only flattens the Iranian political feminist discussion, but speaks from the dominant Western feminist discourse, and accordingly portrays the Iranian one as inferior. In other words, this is only a group of Muslim women here who are fighting old-fashioned clerics in order to show their hair in public.

An activist holds portraits of Iranian Mahsa Amini, during a protest against her death in Iran, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sunday.Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

That is a stereotypical and negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims, fueling the typical Orientalist expectations of Israeli and Western readers without bringing any news. Above all they are presenting the issue only as a “cultural Islamic” and as an “Islamic problem,” when in fact it should be presented mainly as a feminist issue and an issue of basic human rights. After all, in either case, this is coercion and preventing Iranian women from owning their bodies.

The time has come to package the discussion of the hijab differently. Not in order to find favor with the mainstream white feminist discourse and to win its support, but in order to sever it from the religious contextualization and conceptualization that at the moment is hard to beat because it is being conducted in a religious space and language. This contextualization will free the entire discussion from the trap of being for or against wearing the hijab, and will divert the discussion from God, the women’s bodies and morality to political and social coercion, which is the real issue on the agenda.

A recontextualization will enable young Iranian women to present their narrative in the language of their generation and separate it from the dominant religious discussion that seeks to keep the discourse within the realm of religious observance in order to control it. This contextualization will transfer control of the discussion to the Iranian and Muslim women themselves, under their conditions and in their terms.

The Muslim female body is under attack

In that case, my sisters in the struggle, the question that should be asked is not whether or not to wear the hijab, but why the Muslim female body continues to be under attack. Why is the sexuality and morality of the women of the Muslim world, as opposed to the sexuality of Muslim men, under constant male supervision and discussion? Why do men everywhere continue to control the hijab discussion and dictate its contents?

My sisters in the struggle, the time has come to refuse to cooperate with the patriarchal, violent and divisive discussion of for and against, because it forces the questions of the patriarchy on us and blocks the possible channels of female solidarity.

My sisters, the battle of the hijab is not the war, it is only one battle within our broad struggle. My sisters, no man anywhere, no woman anywhere, no organization or country anywhere, have the right to tell Iranian women or other Muslim women in the world to throw the hijab into the trash can. Nor does any man anywhere or any woman anywhere have the right to prevent Muslim women from choosing to wear the hijab if they so desire. My sisters, we are on the same side, the side that demands freedom.

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