The hijab protests in Iran are among the most courageous movements we have seen in contemporary times.
On Sept. 16, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran for not wearing her head scarf properly, as determined by so-called morality police – men, of course. She died in custody. Now, women and men are – without hyperbole – risking their lives by standing up against a tyrannical regime that forces women to cover up.
But the uprisings have illuminated something else: the comfort level of the public (high, revolting) with telling women how to dress – and not just in Iran, or other countries with similar laws regarding female dress.
Last week, on the CBS show 60 Minutes, veteran journalist Lesley Stahl wore a head scarf, loosely, for an in-person interview with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran. Ms. Stahl does not normally wear a head scarf, but did so in order to secure the interview. “I was told how to dress,” Ms. Stahl said in her report.
This sparked some outrage on social media. Nina Ansari, an Iranian-American author, historian and human-rights activist, noted on Twitter that not long after Ms. Amini’s death, Ms. Stahl wore “the veil in deference to oppressive laws of a misogynistic regime.”
The regime is misogynistic and oppressive. But Ms. Stahl was doing her job: to expose that – and to underscore the need to keep close watch on Iran, its domestic human-rights abuses and its nuclear aspirations, which potentially know no borders. She managed to do so, in an important interview. If the cost of doing it was wearing the head scarf, well, that was Ms. Stahl’s decision to make.
Later that week, CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour was also set to interview Mr. Raisi, this time in New York. Through an aide the President suggested, 40 minutes after the interview’s scheduled start time, that she should wear a head scarf. She refused, and Mr. Raisi cancelled.
Good on her. Her head, her choice. But good on Ms. Stahl, too. Her head, her choice.
In Canada, too, we’ve been volunteering our own opinions around the hijab, to the point that CBC broadcaster Ginella Massa, who chooses to wear it, felt it necessary to explain herself on Twitter.
“I usually try to let my work speak for itself but apparently this needs to be said explicitly,” Ms. Massa wrote, noting she has interviewed women fighting for their right to remove their hijab in Iran, as well as women fighting to wear theirs in Quebec, where Bill 21 bars some public servants from wearing religious symbols. “What they are both demanding is autonomy and personal choice, and my job is to offer them a platform to speak their truth. I can be in solidarity with a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body, without changing what I have personally chosen to do with mine.”
Ms. Massa owes us no explanation. How she chooses to present herself in no way affects her abilities at work, and it is none of our business. Yet somehow, people feel it is their right to weigh in.
Whether Lisa LaFlamme’s grey hair directly contributed to her ouster at CTV News remains unclear, but what is certain is how comfortable management (and the public) felt in making it an issue. Just ask any woman who has worked in TV news about the hair comments to which they are subjected – Black women, in particular.
This isn’t confined to TV, and it doesn’t start in adulthood. There are schools that still enforce strict dress codes aimed at girls: skirts must be a certain length, bra straps can’t be showing, no bare midriffs et cetera. In one case earlier this year, a North Carolina charter school was found to have violated the rights of female students by forcing them to wear skirts. The parent/student handbook says the dress code is meant to “instill discipline and keep order so that student learning is not impeded.”
Dictating how women should dress is an indicator of a society that feels comfortable dictating how women should live, and what they can do with their bodies. This regressive thinking can only lead to regressive law – the revoking of abortion rights in the U.S., for instance.
If Ms. Massa or a teacher in Quebec wants to wear a hijab at work, if Ms. LaFlamme wants to go grey, if a Grade 11 student wants to wear a crop top – it is not our concern. It does not affect the lessons, the news, the world. But telling students, teachers, broadcasters – women, anyone – how to dress does. It colours the world.
I can understand why the hijab might incense someone such as Dr. Ansari – a strong advocate who is fighting not simply against mandatory veiling but for the liberation of the country.
But let’s remember who the real villain is here.
Godspeed to the courageous women in Iran burning their head scarves. As the protesters have chanted on the streets: women, life, freedom.