The Islamic headscarf: what are the religious rules on its wearing and why is it politicized? | SBS News

Thousands of women in Iran rise up against their government .
In cities all over Iran, they burn the hijabs they are forced to wear.
Protests have also spread to Australian cities. On Tuesday in Canberra, dozens of people gathered on the lawns of Parliament, chanting “women, rights, freedom!”, and holding up banners with the words “Freedom of choice!”.

The hijab – or headscarf – is often seen as a highly politicized symbol and is now at the center of a revolt against hard-line Iranian officials.

Tensions flared on September 16, when Ms Amini, also known as Jina, fell into a coma and died after being arrested by Iranian morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

Frustrated by the rules of the Conservative government, dozens of women risk their lives defying the authorities, burning their headscarves and cutting their hair in the streets.

Around the world, women are cutting their hair in solidarity with Iranian women protesting against the government after the death of Mahsa Amini. Source: AAP / ANP / Sipa United States

But that’s a different story in countries like France and parts of India, where women have continuously fought for their right to wear the hijab – but they are forbidden to do so.

So what exactly are the Islamic rules regarding the wearing of the headscarf, and why do governments make decisions about how Muslim women can dress?

What does Islam say about the hijab?

Derya Iner, an Islamic studies researcher and lecturer at Charles Sturt University, said a hijab – which means “covering” in Arabic – is generally understood as a headscarf.
Muslim women wear the hijab in accordance with the widely accepted interpretation of two verses in their holy text, the Quran.

According to Dr. Iner, these verses have been read by many scholars to emphasize that Muslim women should cover their hair, neck and ears while wearing long, loose clothing as a sign of modesty.

Muslim women walking in Jakarta.

Four Muslim women wearing their hijab walk through Jakarta. The way Muslim women wear their hijab differs depending on their cultural attire. Source: Getty / Goh Chai Hin

It is understood that Muslim women who wear the hijab should only reveal themselves to other women and their close male relatives – their fathers, brothers, husbands, uncles and sons related at birth.

But Muslims believe that a hijab is more than just a headscarf. It also encompasses the modest social conduct in which Muslim men and women are expected to behave in public. This includes their behavior, mannerisms and speech.

Why do Muslim women wear the hijab?

Dr Iner explained that the “simplest explanation” for wearing the hijab is that her religion told her to do so, to explicitly display her worship.

“I try to follow the guidelines my religion has given me on how to be modest and that’s my choice,” Dr Iner said.

Women wearing different types of hijab and masks.

Muslim students protested against the headscarf ban at the University College of Brussels. Source: Getty / NurPhoto

Shakira Hussein, an honorary fellow at the National Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, said the hijab for Muslim women “symbolizes their faith, symbolizes their modesty”.

“More broadly and particularly when it comes to a religious minority, it is a symbol of belonging to that community,” Dr Hussein said.

Should Muslim women wear the hijab?

While some Muslim women wear the hijab, there are others who do not, but still identify as Muslim.
Some have worn it for years, but have changed their minds in subsequent years – and vice versa.
Dr Hussein said academics differ on their interpretation of whether it is mandatory and how much they should hedge.
But hijab is widely seen as a religious requirement that must be done of a woman’s own free will. Women can choose to wear it anytime in their life when they feel ready to commit to hijab.

“According to this interpretation, it is an obligation that one undertakes voluntarily. You can consider it an obligation, but it is up to you to do it or not,” Dr Hussein said.

“There are women who believe it is a religious obligation, but for some reason have chosen not to wear it.”
She explained that the reasons could include – but are not limited to – fear of harassment, Islamophobia and obstacles in finding a job.

“There are others who do not believe it is religiously obligatory but choose to wear it out of solidarity with other Muslim women as a statement of belonging to their religious community or as a stand against Islamophobia.”

Can women be forced to wear the hijab?

According to Dr. Iner, Islam prohibits acts of worship under duress. Thus, Muslim women cannot be forced to wear the hijab but must do so using their “own and free will”.

“Human beings are left alone to make their own choices. And if you do it not for the love of God but for the love of…your [country’s political] diet, that can be problematic,” she said.

She said that from an Islamic point of view, performing an act of worship without intending it voluntarily can invoke a sense of duality or hypocrisy, which is frowned upon in Islam.

“That’s not the divine point of view…It obviously dilutes the main concept of being a servant of God.”

So why are women forced to wear it in Iran?

Before the 1979 revolution, Iran was turning into a secular state.

In 1936, wearing the hijab was banned in Iran by then-ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi. A decade earlier in Turkey, the same decision had been applied. Dr Hussein said the women who came out were seen as a “symbol of modernity”.

Three young women walk down the street wearing hijabs.

Iranian women walk down a street in the capital Tehran, wearing their hijabs around their faces. Muslim women style their hijabs in different ways, depending on personal and cultural factors. Source: Getty / AFP/Atta Kenare

“It wasn’t that the government at the time was particularly feminist, it was just that having women wearing headscarves in public made the place look backward,” she said.

When the revolution took shape in 1979, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed the hijab mandate to establish the “Islamic Republic”.

From forcible unveiling to forcible veiling, Dr Iner said women’s visibility was used as a political tool to fuel their “so-called Islamist regime”.
“It’s a regime that just uses Islam in its words. That doesn’t necessarily make Islam responsible for what it does,” Dr Iner said.
“The women who burn the hijab, they don’t do it to protest against a verse of the Koran. They do it to show their frustration, the control of the bodies, but especially the regime and the way it treats minorities.”

“It’s part of a larger context of imposing this form of religiosity on a society, as well as, of course, patriarchy and controlling women,” Dr Hussein added.

Do Muslim women have a choice to wear the hijab in other parts of the world?

While women in Iran fight to remove their hijab, Muslim women in India face a major legal battle to enforce their right to wear headscarves in school.

In Karnataka, Muslim girls appealed to the Supreme Court after a ban on wearing religious clothing in educational institutions in February this year.

Since the ban was imposed to enforce uniformity, protests have erupted across the country as many hijab-wearing Muslims – who believe the hijab is a religious requirement – feel they must compromise their faith or their right to education.
In France, wearing the headscarf and “other religious symbols” is prohibited in all public schools, as well as for civil servants. In 2010, it became the first European country to impose a nationwide ban on face-covering burqas in public spaces, such as parks, public transport and open streets.

In France, women caught wearing the burqa in public risk a fine of 150 euros or the obligation to take citizenship courses.

It’s about controlling women’s bodies, but also trying to show the regime and the pillars of their government by instrumentalizing the visibility of women.

Dr Derya Iner

In Iran, the penalty for not wearing the hijab is imprisonment, a fine or flogging.
Other laws have also been passed across France, such as banning the hijab for lawyers in court, in sports competitions, and for mothers to participate in extracurricular school activities.
The “burkini” – long clothing for bathing at the beach often worn by women dressed in the hijab – is also prohibited on several beaches in the south of the country.
These laws were put in place by the French government in a “fight against separatism and attacks on citizenship” and to further establish a secular society.

Dr Iner said women in Iran, France and India face the same struggle: “authority is trying to control our bodies”.

A woman wears the hijab ban with a mask that says "hijab is our right, i support hijab" with a lit candle.

A woman supports her right to wear the hijab during a candlelight march to protest the ban on hijab in educational institutions in Karnataka, India. Source: Getty / Pacific Press

“At the end of the day, it’s about controlling women’s bodies, but also trying to show off the regime and the pillars of their government by instrumentalizing women’s visibility.”

“To be (hijabi) or not to be (hijabi) is the business of no state or man. Solidarity with women who resist patriarchal control, worldwide,” the activist wrote on Twitter. and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Indian activist Tara Krishnaswamy described women in both countries fighting for their rights as brave.

“In Iran, women who take off the hijab are brave. In India, women who wear the hijab are brave. This is not a contradiction, it is resisting patriarchal hegemony and an oppressive state in both case,” Ms. Krishnaswamy said.

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