Protests and government response to them have escalated in Iran for the past 12 days and spread worldwide after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the nation’s morality police, according to the Associated Press. Amini was arrested for her pants being deemed too tight and for not properly wearing her hijab, which is a headscarf worn by Muslim women that is required by law in Iran.
Semiha Topal, visiting assistant professor of religious studies at William & Mary, specializes in the questions around subjectivity, self-construction and women’s agency in contemporary Muslim societies, particularly Turkey and the Middle East. Her current research examines women and piety in Islam, focusing on cases of de-veiling — choosing to no longer wear the hijab — in her native Turkey. She teaches courses on introduction to Islam, women and gender in Islam, and Islam and secularism.
W&M News asked Topal to discuss the complexity of hijab wearing and nuances around women choosing to wear it or not.
Q: Can you describe the significance of wearing the hijab to the Muslim wearer’s faith?
A: If a woman gets the chance to make a choice about wearing or not wearing the hijab in terms of their personal piety, they find meaning in it in the sense that, first of all, what they believe is a Quranic injunction — that Allah tells them in the sacred book to put something on their head. However you interpret it, there’s something about a dress code and modesty in the text.
And this is the way they want to achieve this modesty. For them, it is something that is a way of obedience to God and something that reminds them of God constantly. Because when you’re wearing it, it’s hard to forget that you’re wearing it.
Some people take pride in their Muslim identity, especially in places where they are in a minority situation and they want to display their faith. The hijab is a very strong manifestation of one’s faith.
But that is for people who choose this. And this is rarely the case where women simply can have a relationship with veiling at an individual level because it’s always mixed with these larger social and legal contexts. So that’s kind of the problem.
Q: What would refusing to wear the hijab or burning it in public signify such as during current protests in Iran?
A: Obviously it’s difficult for us to speak for them, but the problem is this is the only way that they can speak at this point. Because this is highly visible and when they see that there is no other way of making their voice heard, they take this huge risk of going directly against the law.
There were cases before this time where some feminists were taking off their hijab and waving it on a stick. And they were facing at least 10 years in prison for doing that, and the crime was encouragement of immorality and vices. And it’s against the law to remove the hijab in a public place.
Now this is turning into a movement, an anti-government protest. So, the criminal implications in the eyes of the government are much more serious. They know what they are risking and that becomes the issue.
One, they probably think that they don’t have much to lose anymore. And most of the people on the streets are young generations. I think they don’t trust the future this regime offers them.
This is an act of “I want my future; if it’s not going to be the way I want, then I’m ready to give it up” kind of action, in my opinion. These are people who have been living in this authoritarian regime ever since they were born and reached that level of dissent with the way they’re governed.
It’s not about the single practice of wearing the headscarf or not. It’s a symbol of the oppression they feel that’s being exerted on them by a regime.
They know what they are doing. And I think their target is not the religious practice of hijab itself; it is the legal imposition of that. Because in Iran it was imposed on people of every faith — so that’s different. Normally if it remains within the area of religious practice, the religious law of Islam does not apply to non-Muslims. You cannot force them to follow what the law says.
So this is a weird mixture of the traditional Muslim law that used to be applied in the earlier Middle Eastern Muslim societies, and a modern nation-state that wants to play the role of enforcing that law as if it is ruling over the same pre-modern era society. But now the rules of the world are different and the people’s reactions to the rules are different. They are not subjects anymore; they want to be citizens, and this doesn’t apply when these morality rules are exerted just like in a pre-modern context.
Q: How is this different from a personal decision to de-veil, and why is it important to understand that?
A: Not everyone initially wears the hijab as a result of faith. And that’s the case for where it is legally obligated — you cannot make a faith-driven choice. It’s just the law; you need to do it.
So, when these people are removing it, you cannot really see it also as a faith-based act because it wasn’t a faith-based act in the beginning. It was a political act or a political symbol when it was being imposed. And what they are rejecting is that political symbol.
Yes, it does sometimes extend to the religious meaning of it because it’s impossible to distinguish. When the regime claims to be the embodiment of religion or the religious authority, it’s difficult for the people sometimes to distinguish what they are resisting against.
But overall, as scholars we can make this distinction that not every case of wearing the hijab is a matter of faith and not every de-veiling is a rejection of the faith or denial of the faith.
Q: How do you see the current protests in Iran affecting Middle Eastern women’s freedom to choose to wear the hijab or not?
A: In Iran, they have a different fate under each different president. When they have a relatively moderate president, the police will turn a blind eye at certain times. And when there is a conservative president, now they make it the most important legal thing.
It is very related to power, in that sense, and what the political rulers see in the imposition of this dress code. When they see it as absolutely indispensable, when it’s very much at the core of their political agenda, they will do everything to not give that up. For this regime, the current president is a conservative one, and he has made it clear that they will be making no back steps against the protesters.
I don’t see it making a huge change at this point, but these are all adding to each other. These protests are a product of earlier protests, and they were a product of earlier protests. Iranian women never stopped resisting, and that’s something we should keep in mind. And they will keep resisting. What can change this is maybe they are joined by women in other countries where the same hijab laws are imposed in a similar way.
Q: What else should be kept in mind going forward?
A: The hijab is a complex issue. It doesn’t have just one interpretation, one meaning, for the Muslims and certainly for the Muslim women who wear it. But they usually cannot find a ground to explore these diverse meanings because it is imposed on them by authoritarian systems that consider it as a mark of a national identity, instead of an individual religious practice.
So, when people are protesting against these laws, they also should be seen in the realm of protesting against the political symbol, not necessarily against the religious belief or faith. And it’s not the religion itself that is oppressing them; it’s those who are interpreting it in a particular way to establish control over the people they are ruling.
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist