The image of women burning hijabs in Iran amidst the recent protests is a powerful one, one that depicts them seizing control of their lives. It is not the headscarf they are setting alight, but rather their lack of autonomy, their restriction of choice.
Demonstrations began after Mahsa Amini was arrested and subsequently killed for violating Iran’s hijab laws requiring women to cover all of their hair. She was detained by Iran’s morality police, who are tasked with ensuring women wear clothing deemed appropriate by authorities, such as loose-fitting dress, full headscarf, and little makeup. The very existence of this police force and its targeting of women takes away freedom of expression through clothes and appearance.
But Iran has been doing this since 1980, when they imposed the dress law that requires women to wear a headscarf; thereby removing their choice. These restrictions purport to be adhering to Islam, but they’re actually a political choice made by the government in an effort to police women’s bodies — manifested in the morality police — and therefore a gross misuse of religion as justification. Although there’s a wider political discourse surrounding Iran’s regime, I’m focussing on clothes in light of Mahsa Amini’s choice of hijab, since fashion has always been a reflection of women’s freedom and personal expression, and can be mapped across the world. Iran’s decision to force a dress code upon its citizens removes an element of women’s voices.
The issue is not the headscarf itself, but the silencing that comes with dictating what clothes women should wear. Dress compulsion can be seen for the reverse, as well, in France. The popularised myth that the West equals freedom has long been, and continues to be, debunked as binary and ignorant, as the following shows. Whilst the majority of women are enjoying the chance to experiment with fashion, to test different styles and aesthetics according to their personal taste — perhaps the best example of this is the recent Paris Fashion Week, exploring new possibilities of fashion so much so that we saw Bella Hadid receiving a spray-on dress while on the runway — there are many women who do not experience that choice. In France, a law was passed in 2004 banning hijabs, as well as any other religious garments, in all school environments. This will have fundamentally impacted countless Muslim girls, by outlawing the clothes they wished to wear, whether that be a personal choice or because they had grown up feeling it to be right for their religion. France has since undergone further restrictions, banning the burqa (a garment that fully covers a woman’s body) in 2010, and more recently receiving a vote to ban under 18s from wearing their hijabs in public. This removes a woman’s choice to explore her own definition of modesty through the clothes she wears, just as Iran is taking away Iranian women’s freedom by enforcing a dress code on a national level.
If we look at English history, the increasing freedom of women’s fashion has been central to progress and equality: women wearing trousers, now largely seen as the norm, was once revolutionary, compared to the centuries of dresses that came before. So why should the restriction of clothing elsewhere in the world be viewed as anything but an outdated element of inequality and oppression, intended to silence women? Sudan’s repeal of its Public Order Law, which dictated how women dressed in public, should have been a sign of progress to come, but the recent action in Iran serves to show that change won’t come from authorities, but rather the women in the streets, burning their headscarves to get their voices heard across the world.
Featured image: by Craig Melville on Unsplash