From the September-October 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Terry Moon
Forced veiling is a cruel means of controlling women and making it clear that they do not control their own lives. Its usefulness to totalitarians is in taking citizens’ minds off the leaders’ failures and bad policies like raising prices of necessities like oil, bread, medicine and fuel; or other disasters such as floods, droughts, or wildfires from the heating climate.
While starvation, unemployment, and spectacularly high maternal and infant mortality plague Afghanistan, the Taliban reacted on May 7 by decreeing that Afghan women must cover themselves from head to toe, preferably with the burqa, a covering so severe that women’s eyes are obscured by netting.
The decree is so unpopular that the Taliban enforce it by threatening husbands, brothers and sons with jail or loss of scarce jobs if their wives, sisters or mothers do not toe the hide-your-body line.
Nevertheless, they cannot stop the revolt. As Shabana Shabdeez, 24, a women’s activist in Kabul, told The New York Times, she would refuse to cover herself, “even if they kill me. Women are born free. It is their basic human right to walk around freely.”
In Egypt, almost 30 million people out of a population of 102 million live in poverty; 70 million depend on state-sponsored subsidy programs. The government already devalued the Egyptian pound by 14% earlier this year, inflation is at least 14.6%, and grains and fuel prices have skyrocketed.
Enter Egypt’s Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest religious authority, who issued a Fatwa, one provision of which “forbids women from leaving home without the hijab.” The outcry was so great they had to change the wording the next day to forbidding women from going to Eid prayers without the veil.
Again, nothing stopped the revolt. “Down with Sheikh Al-Azhar” trended on Twitter. Several prominent women, including Egyptian journalist Sarar al-Jaara, made the point that “The Al-Azhar sheikh is not the guardian of society and the veil is not an obligation.” Women had to remind the clerics that the Egyptian Constitution forbids infringing on citizens’ personal freedom. Rida al-Danbouki, director of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, pointed out: “The renewed debate over the headscarf in Egypt is nothing but an attempt by clerics to impose patriarchal control and oppression on women’s bodies,” calling such efforts “misogynistic and incitement against women.”
Iran, too, is suffering from high inflation, with soaring food and fuel prices. By May, prices of some foods jumped over 300% and demonstrations broke out for over 10 days around the country. Despite the government’s need for cash, hardline president Ebrahim Raisi’s regime budgeted $3.8 million to the Initiative for Promotion of Virtue, which forcibly enforces veiling with arrests and beating women in the streets.
“Justice-Seeking Mothers,” inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, agitate against the murder of their children by the regime. Some have been arrested on trumped-up charges of not wearing a veil, even though they all do.
Iranian women are fighting back against growing regime brutality. In May, when the regime celebrated “chastity and hijab week,” women posted unveiled selfies and pictures on social media walking bareheaded through cities. Writer and artist Sepideh Rashno was beaten so severely after her arrest for “improper clothing” that she was hospitalized with internal bleeding before being televised in a “forced confession.” These so-called “confessions,” broadcasts of women apologizing for being unveiled, are known to be the result of torture. Rashno was reported as “pale and subdued…with dark circles around her eyes,” during her “confession.”
Elham Gheytanchi, an associate professor of sociology at Santa Monica College, explained to Al-Monitor why women will never stop fighting against forced veiling:
“Hijab has nothing to do with morality, religion or ethics” but is “what the political elite wants, and it is how they came to power. Making hijab mandatory for all means that the regime governs your most private realm and is present everywhere. If it had to do with religion, it would have been a private matter between women and their God. But the Iranian government has declared itself as the force of God and their legitimacy depends on it.”
–August 28, 2022