Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
A long while back, a good friend of mine decided to take a stand on the hijab. She was Muslim, and grew up in a Muslim household. She had thought long and hard about her decision, and decided to start wearing it.
Her father disagreed, berating her. When that didn’t work, he beat her. But she would not be cowed by the physical abuse. She could have filed a complaint with the authorities here in Canada, but decided, for personal reasons, against it. These were deeply personal choices made under difficult circumstances. But they were hers to make.
I thought of my friend upon hearing of the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being taken into custody by Iran’s “morality” policy for allegedly violating the country’s hijab laws. The authorities claim that the 22-year-old woman had a heart attack at a re-education centre. Her family disputes the account, indicating that she was in perfect health. Autopsy reports were not made public. The official account defied credibility, given endemic institutional corruption. The allegations are that Ms. Amini was beaten to death.
That a woman was arrested and died for showing wisps of hair is reprehensible. That such a law exists is a travesty to basic human dignity. Iranian women are rightfully fed up with edicts that suffocate their lives and violate their personal agency. But it goes beyond women. You cannot shove religion down peoples’ throats without missing the point entirely. As the Quran succinctly puts it: “There is no compulsion in religion.”
While the current upheaval in Iran is partially the result of a population chafing against a ruling elite, it is also, at its heart, about the position of women in Iranian society. Half the population could more fully help their country to flourish, provided they were given the opportunity to do so. Instead, women have been suppressed and society has suffered as a consequence.
Some believe one of the solutions to ending the suppression of women is to ban the hijab. But this simply repeats the initial cardinal violation of taking away a woman’s agency in making her own choices. In any instance, a grown woman is fully capable of weighing the necessary information, consulting her peers, if she’d like, and reaching to the inner recesses of her conscience to make a decision that suits her.
Back in grad school at Harvard, one of my closest friends was an Iranian exile, whose family had suffered under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. Understandably, she hated state-sanctioned “Islam,” and, in particular, the hijab. We used to debate long into the night about the place of religion in society. I learned a great deal from her. When I chose to wear the hijab during the final year of my doctorate, she was mortified, and tried ardently to dissuade me. Another Pakistani friend tried to do the same. He hated the mullahs and their edicts; an imam had tried to sexually assault him when he was a child.
I clearly saw that both of my friends’ choices were informed by their respective experiences. However, as I explained, my choice was predicated on my own path – not theirs. It was deeply personal, and remains so. I do not impose it on anyone. Nor do I appreciate when others try to impose their choices on me or other women. Many years ago, I stood by my friend who was beaten by her father for choosing to wear the hijab. I stand by my Iranian sisters for the right to choose not to wear it, and their right to be free from coercion and violence.
In the end, it is about power and control. This summer, a Leger poll found that as a result of Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans the wearing of “religious symbols” (including the hijab) by public-sector workers, more than 70 per cent of Muslim women in the province feel less safe and more than 80 per cent said they feel less hopeful for the next generation.
To the ruling elites, be they secular (in Quebec and France) or religious (in Iran and Afghanistan), I say this: Just leave Muslim women alone. Let us live our lives and contribute to society. We have so much to offer, and we want to be part of the greater whole. We are not enemies of the state.
To my sisters in humanity: As women, we rarely see life as a zero-sum game. Let us respect individual choices. Let us be supportive of each other and band together against the haters. Let us remember Mahsa Amini and the many women who struggle on the path of freedom. Our inner voice is our strength – and no one can take it away.