Hijab row in Iran: Islam must be reformed from within, writes Pakistani journalist Arzoo Kazmi


Make it mandatory and they will oppose it. Make it discretionary and they’ll fight for it. This is the relationship of the hijab with Muslim women all over the world. With more and more Muslim countries opting to view the burqa or hijab as a personal choice rather than a religious compulsion, this clothing is now constantly embroiled in controversy.

The struggle for personal freedom has now reached the streets of Tehran, the capital of Iran. The women of the Islamic country protest for freedom from the hijab. Following the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s, this is the country’s largest-ever uprising in which women seek to break free from compulsory Islamic practices.

The unrest against the hijab was sparked by the detention and custodial death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini.

In Iran, wearing the hijab began as a symbol of religious identity. It is now enforced as a government policy and supported by religious leaders. However, women want the practice to continue as a matter of choice, not a legal obligation.

This comes amid a movement in Europe in which several countries have rejected wearing the clothes. Some countries, such as France, have banned the hijab completely, sparking a huge uproar in the Islamic world.

Let’s take the example of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In a place like Lahore, the country’s cultural center and the center of the entertainment industry, women wear short skirts and plunging blouses. Here, wearing the hijab is a matter of personal choice. Admittedly, in any market in Lahore, some women would wear a burqa or hijab, but the percentage of such people is dismal.

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You can imagine that in a country where even female politicians wearing a hijab is a rarity, political parties are extremely careful about this issue. They dare not speak out against it, otherwise their public support will erode. Interestingly, two of the three wives of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who always wore the Islamic rosary, never wore the hijab. The same can be said about Pakistan’s elite class.

Pakistan witnesses Azadi March every year on Women’s Day. It normally finds no support in the political spheres. With the controversy over the hijab in Karnataka still fresh in people’s minds, the Pakistani political establishment tried to talk about the hijab. However, the suggestion was dropped by the women’s rights organization. In that year’s march, no more than one percent of women were seen wearing the hijab.

Karachi, once the fashion capital of pre-independence India, is no different. Women who wear the hijab are rare. The fast-paced and modern lifestyle of the people of Karachi does not provide enough space for the hijab.

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In the Indian capital New Delhi, the hijab is not common, even in Muslim-dominated areas such as the Jama Masjid. It is as uncommon as Hindus wearing tilak.

The rhetoric within the Muslim community across the subcontinent – from the Durand line to the Arunachal Pradesh – is laced with the importance of the hijab. When it comes to activism or political motives, everyone supports Hijab and Burkha.

A student in Karnataka, who went to university in a Burkha, was filmed and the video was played by almost all broadcasters in the SAARC region. The photos on her social media profiles revealed that the girl herself did not wear the burqa every time she left the house.

However, she started a controversy in which every Muslim ulema and every politician in India and Pakistan wanted to voice their opinion.

From Nobel laureate Malala to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri, everyone weighed in on the controversy — to be in the international spotlight. The reality, however, was different.

Finally, there is another development that has been largely ignored, namely that Saudi Arabia, the country that has been the standard-bearer of the Islamic world for decades, has also begun to change its social practices. With Bollywood actors who perform in a country where there is a strict ban on films.

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Saudi Arabia has now allowed women to drive their cars. Several more eights will be offered in the near future, and with good reason. Islam urgently needs reforms and they will have to come from within the community.

During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the protesters’ slogan was “Estiqlal, Azadi, Jomhuri-ye Eslami” (Independence, Freedom and the Islamic Republic). It has now changed to “Aazadi of Hijab”. This shift represents an imminent and required change in Islamic society, not only in Iran but also in other countries.

My body, my right becomes the slogan of the millennial girls on the subcontinent.

(Arzoo Kazmi is a Pakistani journalist based in Islamabad. Known for a forward-thinking outlook, she comes from a journalistic family background. An alumnus of the prestigious Punjab University, she has written numerous articles for renowned news channels such as Business Recorder, Pakistan Times, Frontier Post, Pakistan Observer, Independent Urdu, along with some Indian newspapers.)



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