Women, Veils and Revolutions: Feminism versus authoritarianism

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Feminism and the Post-'Arab Spring'

Shalu Nigam    14 January 2023

For centuries, the male-dominated society has imposed various restrictions on women. Men-dominated society, families, religions, businesses, and the states, all are undermining women’s autonomy, identity, and existence by deciding what women should wear, their mobility, education, work, marriage, and even outfits. Surveillance tools such as moral policing are used to curtail women’s freedom in addition to using violence as a tool to control them. However, when patriarchy is bent on tying women in chains, women are breaking the shackles to dismantle the ingrained patriarchy. For instance, recently, many despotic governments have imposed the regulations relating to the hijab or veil, as a political tool to oppress women. In response, women began a revolution to reclaim their rights. Grassroots feminist activism began countering authoritarianism and challenging patriarchy in different ways. In this process, the veil, or hijab, emerged as a symbol of revolution and a tool to strengthen democracy. Though a little attention is being paid to women’s uprisings against authoritarianism, this work suggests that gender remains central to the discourse around establishing democratic principles globally. The key to challenging the global rise of authoritarianism lies in supporting women’s rights and resistance and initiating proactive strategies to strengthen feminist activism. More specifically, peacebuilding and crisis management programs need to advance gender justice through a feminist policy approach based on a trifecta of hope, imagination, and possibilities.

Waves of revolution against tyranny

Iranian women are burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in protest against the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was killed after being arrested in September 2022 in Tehran by Iran’s “morality police”. The police response to the ongoing protests is brutal. Several people are reported dead or executed. While Iran’s government is implementing a dress-code law, along with a new list of restrictions, the movement led by women refused to observe the dress code imposed upon them while risking their lives. The protestors chanted `death to dictator’ in their outrage against fundamentalism. The central slogan of this movement is “Women, Life, Freedom.” The core of this cultural revolution is to reclaim the bodily autonomy of women and to uphold the freedom of choice. The movement is leaderless, and this is one of its strengths. Several scholars see it as a call for structural reform which is making a dent in the deep-rooted patriarchy.

In Afghanistan, too, when the Taliban announced that women must cover their faces in either a full black Arab-style niqab or the local blue chador, or wear a burqa, the women protested. The Taliban tried to crush this campaign of women against the hijab ban, malign the protestors, and take steps to invisibilize women. One of the women’s rights activists, Naheed Farid, demanded that this crackdown against women’s rights by the Taliban be labelled `gender apartheid’. Nevertheless, despite opposition, women are expressing themselves against the brutal force of the Taliban. Also, since the Taliban returned to power, girls in several provinces of Afghanistan are prohibited from attending school. Women are banned from attending university, they are denied access to health care, their mobility is curtailed; and women are systematically excluded from public life.  The Afghan women see this move of the Taliban as a backlash and an attack on their rights and are therefore demanding the right to education, the right to work, their right to travel without fear, and more importantly, their right to life with dignity.  The slogan of `Bread, work and freedom’ for every Afghan is being raised to counter oppression. Men are also showing their solidarity with women against the Taliban. Some are walking out, refusing to take their exams, or resigning from their jobs.

However, in contrast, in India, which is a secular country, girls protested because they wanted to study while wearing hijab. On 5 February 2022, the Karnataka state government issued a circular prohibiting the wearing of the hijab in college. Several girls challenged this order before the Karnataka High Court. On 15 March 2022, a three-judge bench ruled that wearing the hijab is not a mandatory practice under Islam. The court preferred ‘uniformity in uniform’ over girls’ right to education while punishing girls for wearing the clothes of their choice.

In the hijab debate, the focus is diverted to religiosity rather than women’s right to education. Proponents of the ban expressed a desire for uniformity in the classroom, but little was said about the sudden imposition of a dress code, about the privatization of education, or about preserving democratic ideals and fostering the norms of diversity. The petitioners challenged this decision in the Supreme Court. In October 2022, Supreme Court Justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia delivered separate judgments in a case relating to the ban on the hijab in educational institutions. Justice Gupta dismissed all appeals. Justice Dhulia allowed all the appeals while setting aside the Karnataka High Court’s decision.

While pronouncing the decision, Justice Dhulia rightly raised the pertinent issues when he stated that “asking a girl student to remove her hijab at the school gate by a school is an invasion of her privacy and dignity” and a clear violation of her fundamental rights. He also argued that the biggest concern in this matter is education, “A girl child has to face many times more obstacles and difficulties than a boy in getting an education. Therefore, this matter should also be seen in the context of the challenges faced by a girl child in reaching her school. Therefore, this court will ask itself whether we are improving the lives of girls by depriving them of education just because they wear hijab!”

Now this matter is pending before the Chief Justice, Supreme Court and the activists are demanding that it must be taken up immediately as Muslim girls are being denied their constitutional rights to education, privacy and dignity.  Many women’s rights and human rights organizations see the hijab ban as a multiple-edged sword to deny girls from underprivileged families their right to education. It is reported that after the hijab protests, the number of minority students in government schools dropped by more than 50% . Hostility was directed against a piece of cloth, and many students were prevented from attending classes or writing exams while others dropped out.  A report by PUCL observed that the apathetic response of the state led to polarisation in classrooms, and created a turmoil where many students felt threatened, unsafe, traumatic and excluded. Moreover, this political debate must be understood in the context of the country’s communal history, minority politics, and the ongoing controversy over the image of the Muslim ‘other’. This clash between women’s citizens and the state was mirrored earlier when the state pushed the Citizenship Amendment law.

In short, to understand the debate about hijab, it is important to know the specific historical and socio-political context of each country.  The complexities of the situations in such countries indicate that the system of governance is shattered, inequalities are widening, and yet those in power prioritize dictating women’s attire while overlooking the urgency to provide basic necessities such as food, education, employment, or safety. The Human Development Report while focusing on the global crisis, and growing uncertainties that have escalated due to the war and pandemic, suggests investments, insurance, and innovations. Yet, authoritarian regimes interfere with women’s rights. Perhaps, controlling women is much easier than addressing the larger socio-economic issues. The circumstances show that the path of progress for human rights is not linear, and that gender rights are precarious. In the process, the hijab is being used as a tool to politically and socially oppress women. However, women are protesting against the autocratic governments that are pushing conservative ideas to curb their hard-earned freedom. The hijab or veil, hence, emerged as a symbol of revolution, or, in other words, the master’s tools are being used to dismantle the master’s house.

In their defiance, women are reclaiming their rights to wear the hijab at their own free will and as a tool to reclaim their democratic rights. Women on the margins, are therefore, talking back to dominant, powerful elites who are marginalizing them, demanding their claims. So, when Spivak questioned “Can the subalterns speak?”, and while answering that in the context of colonial production of gender, she argued that `the subaltern has no history and cannot speak’, the discussion above, reflects on alternative or figural subalterns as opposed to literal subalterns, who are raising their voices and re-writing, re-imagining, and reconfiguring herstory, creating a different world, though their voices may remain unheard in the chaos being created by the elite, privileged groups. Or, it may be said that those marginalized are not powerless but are contesting the domination and negotiating their claims as citizens and as human beings.

Women’s autonomy is essential

Whether it is Iran, Afghanistan, or India, the issue is not whether one is for or against the hijab. The question is how regimes attempt to control women’s existence and bodies and try to dictate their lives.  The problem is not the hijab; it lies in the coercive enforcement of the arbitrary rules by the tyrannical theocratic regimes that wanted to control women by denying them their basic rights.  Despotic governments are combining religion and law to deny women citizens their basic human rights and autonomy while crushing the rule of law. The goal of this form of religious fundamentalism is to push conservative ideas and diminish the progress made in the field of women’s rights.

With the rise of authoritarianism, a different form of feminism is emerging simultaneously, where women across the world are challenging their governments to reclaim their rights. The core of these revolutionary movements against the hijab is about women’s autonomy. It is against the deeply engrained patriarchy, and it is about the freedom of choice of women to decide what to wear. The demand for women’s autonomy and freedom of choice in terms of veil is intertwined with the demand for a better world for women and children. The protests are also against the absence of democratic norms and abuse of power. The struggle of women is also against years of repression by the state, its oppressive policies, barbarism, rising socio-economic inequalities, corruption and socio-economic stagnation, the denial of basic human rights and an outdated model of governance. Women all over the world are demanding freedom of choice and also that their governments prioritise basic socioeconomic rights, such as education, livelihood, work, and safety without fear or hindrance, as well as freedom of choice.

In the process, as agents of social change, women are breaking down the barriers, constantly challenging and destroying patriarchy. What women expect is the liberation of the female body from the clutches of male norms, and also recognition of their agency and voice. Freedom without fear – these are the demands of women – freedom to make their own decisions, freedom to live with dignity, freedom to study and work without fear, freedom to breathe in the open air, besides freedom to dream and to fulfil them. The veil, therefore, emerged as a symbol of revolution and a tool to strengthen democracy in an authoritarian environment. Feminism is defying authoritarianism in its own ways. It is therefore, vital to ensure that gender remains central to the process of strengthening democracy across the world.

Global response and further policy recommendations

Globally, countries such as the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom have imposed sanctions on Iran, though Iran has criticized this response slamming their dual approach regarding human rights and accused UK of interfering in the internal matters.  The United Nations condemned the violent response of the state and argued that women should not be punished for what they want to wear and that penalizing the protestors or weaponizing the criminal procedures amounts to a violation of human rights. It is strongly advised that those -protesting peacefully must not be detained. The USCIRF called for a UN Commission of Inquiry on Iran after the crackdown. The United Nations Human Rights Council has initiated an investigation into the violation of human rights in November 2022. The UN Secretary General urged security forces to refrain from using disproportionate force against peaceful protestors. The G7 members urged the authorities in Iran to honour international obligations.

 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, while commenting on the situation in Iran and Afghanistan, expressed his concerns that nearly after 75 years of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, efforts are being made to strip women’s rights. Similarly, the OHCHR called for protestors’ voice to be amplified in Afghanistan and urged the Taliban to restrain using force against protestors. The UN condemned the violent response of the Taliban to dissent. Amnesty International urged the Taliban to restore peace and protect the rights of the Afghan people. Several human rights organizations have called for proportionate and urgent response to hold the Taliban accountable for abuses.

In India, after the hijab ban, when the US Ambassador at the US Office of Inter-Religious Freedom commented that the “hijab ban violates religious freedom and stigmatizes and marginalizes women and girls”, the Indian government dismissed this remark, saying that the matter is under judicial examination. After the videos of young Muslim women being denied entry into educational institutions, were circulated on social media, many people from the Middle East countries exhibited their solidarity with the Muslim women, and this triggered a row. Globally, some people protested for hijab rights.

However, many scholars argued that the international response remained weak, limited, and reactive and argued for a pro-active multidimensional, strategic, and long-term approach. Therefore, much more needs to be done to support women and children in a crisis situation. The need is to focus on collective actions coupled with inclusion-based strategies to unlock human potential. Besides condemning the brutal actions of the totalitarian regimes, we need to express solidarity with the women contesting their claims. A robust mechanism is required globally to eliminate the climate of fear and violence and to sustain peace and gender justice. It is vital to create safe spaces for all women and children across the world while abolishing all forms of inequality. It is essential is to uphold the principles of gender equality, peace, justice, and sustainable development in Iran, Afghanistan, India and elsewhere. Feminist resistance movements need to integrate and learn from these struggles. Democracy needs to be reconfigured from the perspective of those who are dominated and marginalized, and are negotiating for their rights. Gender plays a central role in challenging authoritarianism. The key to challenging the global rise of authoritarianism, therefore, lies in supporting women’s rights and initiating pro-active strategies to strengthen feminist activism. It is important to rectify situations of historic injustice to enable an environment rooted in equity and justice through a gender just, feminist policy rooted in the trifecta of hope, imagination, and possibilities.

The author is an advocate, activist and an independent researcher working at the intersection of women’s rights, human rights, law and governance.