We often hear the claim that Muslim women wear the hijab because they want to. And perhaps that’s true for some, though one must distinguish the various causes for “want to.” These include “wanting to” because you were indoctrinated that way, “wanting to” because you know that the alternative is beating or something worse, and “wanting to” because you know you have alternatives, but you really feel better draped in cloth.
Let’s first review the various garments worn by Muslim women, which are often confused. The hijab covers the head and usually part of the chest, while the niqab also covers part of the face:
We already know that many women who wear hijabs and niqabs don’t do it voluntarily, for in places like Iran and Afghanistan,they adopted these garments only after the countries were taken over by theocracies and veiling became compulsory. Before that, many women were sporting Western dress. For instance, just do a Google image search for “Women Kabul 1970” versus “Women Kabul 2015“. Further, there have been “protest days” when women in both countries abandoned these garments as a statement against theocracy (see my posts here, here, and here).
If you need more evidence against the voluntary wearing of the hijab, The New York Times published a piece a few months ago showing some previously unpublished photos by Hengameh Golestan (a woman) documenting widespread protests by women of Iran’s theocratic dress restrictions. The history of these protests, which took place when the dress code came down, have been suppressed by Iran:
When 34-year-old photographer Azadeh Fatehrad first laid eyes on an image by Hengameh Golestan, of women protesting in the streets of Tehran in 1979, she was struck immediately — it was unlike anything she had seen before.
Born in 1981 in Iran, Fatehrad had learned in school that women made a smooth transition to Islamic rules imposed after the 1979 Revolution — in particular adopting a compulsory dress code, the hijab. But Golestan’s image told a different story: thousands of women in the street, protesting the announcement that the headwear would be mandatory.
“I couldn’t believe that photo was taken in Iran — I was completely surprised,” Fatehrad tells Women in the World by email. She describes this kind of historical record as “inaccessible” in Iran.
Golestan, 64, a pioneer of Iranian photojournalism, remembers the day of the protest well. “The atmosphere was very joyful,” she recalls, on the phone from London, where she has lived for three decades. “Women went on strike that day, because the night before they had announced in the papers that women should wear scarves when they went to work. So nobody went to work, they all went on strike, came to the streets and from early morning they began to march from the Tehran University.”
The date was March 8, International Women’s Day, and the image shows women from all walks of life — nurses, students, mothers — marching, smiling, arms raised in protest. More than 100,000 of them. At the time, Golestan recalls, Iranian people were very “politically charged” and believed change could be effected by demonstrating in the streets. “This time they were disappointed,” she says. “From the next day everybody had to wear the scarf.”
There’s also a story and photos in the Torygraph (both pieces published in September, but I’m behind). Perhaps someone who reads Arabic can translate the sign in the photo below:
Sensing the importance of the occasion, Golestan decided to attend as a photographer rather than a protestor. At the time, there were few documentary photographers in Tehran. “People were not really familiar with that type of journalism,” says Golestan. “At demonstrations…there were not enough of us [photographers] to be noticed….But taking pictures in the crowd was not easy, most of the time I was running and hiding from the government officials who did not want images to be taken. It was a solo undertaking, the fact that you would have to constantly run and hide made it impossible to go in as a team.”
It bothers me when people claim that we don’t understand why Muslim women wear the hijab, arguing that it’s purely voluntary. The photos above show that’s not completely true.