The Hijab Controversy

– Iran And India – The Difference In Narrative –


The Indian social media and politically and socially charged spaces have been buzzing over the last few weeks, with post after post about how women are fighting for their rights…. in India- to wear the Hijab, while in Iran – to not!

In India, the Hijab controversy was sparked when some Muslim junior college students in Karnataka were denied entry on the grounds that their clothing was in violation of the college’s uniform policy. In Iran, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini has jolted the collective conscience of civil society, the world over. She was detained by the morality police in Iran because of her immodest clothing.

As per reports, she was beaten by the police and suffered a heart failure, went into a coma and succumbed two days later. Her bereaved father said she was killed for two strands of hair showing! Massive protests followed her death, with violent clashes against Iran’s security forces leading to 75 civilians losing their lives. Women across Iran are burning hijabs and cutting their hair as a mark of protest against the draconian hijab laws in Iran and to show their solidarity with Mahsa Amini’s cause. However, it is important to note that this is not the first time that anti-hijab and anti-establishment protesters have hit the streets of Iran.

In India, on the other hand, there is no law in the Indian Constitution mandating a code of conduct for women, in a way which is even remotely similar to the Iranian democracy. In India, protected by the, ‘Right to Live with Human Dignity’, under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Muslim women in India are free to wear the Hijab or the burqa in public places, without any repercussions.

But, it is relevant to acknowledge that institutions, like colleges, also have the right to impose a dress code within the premises. A woman’s right to dress as per her wish does not trump the right of an institution to decide a dress code for its entrants. And so, it follows that a college can demand appropriate dressing as per their uniform. The same applies to hotels, restaurants, religious institutions and any private or government office premises.

So then, the crux of the argument here is, is wearing a hijab an essential practice in Islam, obligated upon every woman? Now that being the case, the equivalence drawn with Iran as a matter of ‘choice’ would not apply. At the same time, if the hijab is not an essential practice in Islam, as Iranian protestors and numerous clerics would gladly tell you, then the demand to wear it does not stand lawfully as well. There is an immediate need to come to a consensus on whether hijab is mandated by Islamic law or if it’s a woman’s choice, since it clearly cannot be both at the same time!

Muslim women in Iran are facing legal repercussions and extreme police brutality for their right to not wear the hijab in public places, while Muslim women in Karnataka are demanding the privilege to breach the dress code of an educational institution to wear a burqa and niqab inside college premises.

So what is the Hijab? In its earliest form, a hijab was a piece of cloth placed on a woman’s head to cover the top of her hair or all of the head except the face, and sometimes the face too. The origins of the hijab are debated to this day, but most historians and researchers agree that throughout history, women of different statuses have worn some variation of the hijab.

Biblical verses portray the earliest semitic women in veils, symbolizing virtue and status. In ancient Mesopotamia, the hijab was worn exclusively by women of high status. Slaves and unchaste women were prohibited to cover their heads or faces. Over time, the hijab adopted a different meaning and function. With Islam, the old status conventions were eliminated and all women were obliged to completely cover all their hair, neck and ears.

Tied to the Hijab verse in the Quran was a demand to dress modestly. The hijab became associated with modesty and acquired the functionality of privatizing sexuality by hiding a woman’s physical appeal to foreign men and strangers. Awareness of this explicit function is the key to understanding the debate around the hijab and its purpose. The Islamic context begs the question of the other part of the hijab decision. Is it a choice? And if it is, it only follows that not all Muslim women consider it a religious and moral commitment to which they must unquestionably adhere.

As Islam spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula, different cultures and subcultures have added their own esthetics to the hijab as well, thus preventing the emergence of a uniform head-cover across the entirety of the Muslim world. The geographical disparities in the role played by the Hijab have also become more evident. American and European Muslim women, for example consider the Hijab as a source of pride among a minority group. This identity may accompany a religious aspect but will often surpass it in priority.

Muslim women, in more conservative settings, are not allowed these options and face immense pressure. The hijab has been – and continues to be – used as a tool of oppression in many Muslim-majority states. But does the burning of the Hijab in Iran necessarily mean an attack on Islam or religion at large, as the religious conservatives claim? The removal of the head cover and setting it alight, is first and foremost a rejection of the forced laws, oppression and brutality imposed by the government and the state-sanctioned criminality that killed an innocent woman for showing a bit of hair. The burning of the hijab in this context is all about gender equality and the right to choose.

The headscarf may be a symbol of dissent. But simply put, it’s all about lifting the veil – metaphorically and literally!



Veera Shroff Sanjana
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