The two photos at the bottom sum up much of the problem of obscurantism and extremism in the Muslim world—it’s not about the people but regimes and governments. The first picture captures the scene from March 8 , 1979, when more than 100,000 women gathered on the streets of Tehran, the capital of Iran, to protest against the hijab.
The new Islamic regime after the Islamic revolution had imposed stringent controls on women’s dress. They were supposed to wear hijab out of home. On March 8, 1979, the International Women’s Day, women came out in the streets in protest against the hijab rule. This is one of many such evocative pictures taken by Hengameh Golestan during those protests.
Decades after that protest, the Iranian woman are still struggling against the hijab. In 2014, Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-born journalist and activist based in the United States, started an online movement called My Stealthy Freedom. It involved Iranian women posting their pictures without hijab online. You can have an idea about this movement by visiting the website, mystealthyfreedom.net
Alinejad also launched a movement called White Wednesdays in which women use the hashtag #whitewednesdays to post on social media their pictures and videos wearing white headscarves in protest. Recently, a woman protester climbed on a plinth, took off her headscarf and turned it into a flag as a mark of protest. Her video went viral, and she became the face of the recent mass protests in Iran though she had staged her protest a bit earlier. The protests, in which more than 20 people died in police firing, are mainly against the bad economic conditions but they had an unmistakable anti-Islamist posture too as sharp slogans were heard against the Islamic regime.
Some slogans even gave voice to an undercurrent that now opposes Iran’s support to extremism: “Death to [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei!”; “Death to Hezbollah!”; “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, Our Life Only for Iran!”
The second picture shows a Swedish government delegation led by trade minister Ann Linde to Tehran early last year. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s government in Sweden proudly calls itself the “first feminist government in the world”. Except, it seemed, their feminism is not for the Iranian women.
You can see the women of Swedish government delegation walking past Iranian president Hassan Rouhani all covered in headscarves in deference to the modesty law that forces women to wear hijab outside their homes. Who are the real feminists? These Swedish government officials or the women in the first photo?
For quite some time, many feminists in the West have abandoned Muslim women’s cause. But if the self-declared “feminist government” too kneels before the repressive Iranian regime, you may wonder what feminism has come to be in the West. Western feminists have so upended the logic of feminism that even a Shariah-apologetic Linda Sarsour can be portrayed as a feminist.
But Iranian women have been fighting their battles alone and would keep fighting. Under their pressure, Tehran has relaxed the hijab rule. Now women would not be immediately arrested and tried in a court for not wearing hijab, They will instead be educated by the police about the importance of modesty. But repeat offenders will have to face the full force of the law.
Had it not for the West’s covert and overt support to Islamic regimes, the world would have been a more peaceful place. It is a mistaken view that Islamic fundamentalism emerges from the religion itself. In Iran as well as Egypt, Afghanistan and many other Muslim countries where women have to compulsorily cover themselves today, a few decades ago they roamed freely and dressed as they liked. It is the West that has provided legitimacy to brutal Islamic regimes, emboldening them to impose regressive social practices on their people, especially women. Think of American support to Saudi Arabia today, or the propping up of the Taliban in Afghanistan to counter Russia a few decades ago.
Maybe you would ignore a politician, say Barack Obama, kneeling before the Saudi regime, but how would you explain America’s leading universities working in collaboration with the House of Saud? Saudi Arabia has openly funded universities in the US which return the favour by mainstreaming and legitimizing regressive religious practices. The Swedish “feminist government” has illustrious company all over the West among activists and intellectuals and in the governments.
“The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets,’” US President Donald Trump tweeted on the Iran protests. “The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”
Trump’s tweet is quite revealing in more ways than one. Many in the West have made little attempt to differentiate the Muslim people from their repressive theological regimes.
Islamic terrorists and Shariah regimes are widely seen as representing the will of the common Muslim people. Most of the coverage of and commentary on the niqab ban in Canada presented Muslims as a monolithic community. The general assumption seems to be that the Muslim community has no internal debate, dissent or difference of opinion.
The persistent efforts in the West to represent Muslims with their clergy has done a big disservice to the ordinary Muslim who, thanks to the dominant representation in media, has come to be seen as someone close to modern ideas. The Iran protests put a big question mark on these assumptions. They not only expose former U.S. president Barack Obama’s abject surrender to the Iranian clergy but also call into question the media representation of the Muslim politics.
That’s why the recent protests did not get the kind of coverage they deserved. The protests were interpreted as popular spontaneous anger over rising food prices. Of course, the economic conditions were the main grouse of the protesters but if they are also shouting in the streets that they don’t want their regime to support Hezebollah, that they have nothing to do with Gaza or Lebanon and that they don’t hate Jews, it all means there is something far more significant to the protests than mere rising prices.
The question is, what has Gaza or Lebanon got to do with the price of eggs, as it were? The protests began with the prices but soon began giving voices to the fundamental issue—the Islamic regime. Protesters even shouted that they did not want Islamic republic. Shouting slogans in the streets in Iran is not just a test of your lungs and vocal cords. They require real courage because those shouting these slogans will ultimately be crushed by the regime through long trials.
The anti-Islamist sentiment that bubbled up in the protests undermines the dominant narrative in the West that buys into the ideas of the regimes and ignores the common people. Since many in the Western establishment have been won over by the Islamists, the fact that Muslims are normal people all of whom are not controlled by the clergy is hard to accept in the mainstream discourse. That’s why the protests have been largely seen as an angst over worsening economic conditions. And that’s when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei himself said that all those who were against the Islamic Republic had joined forces in order to create problems for the Islamic Revolution.
When the regime itself interprets the riots as resistance to Islamism, the West has reduced them to mere economy. What must the Iranian women, who have been fighting for basic freedoms, be thinking when they see their Western counterparts legitimizing their repressive regimes or downplaying their struggles? That they would have to climb on to the plinth, turn their hijabs into flags and keep waving till the world knows the truth.