After massacre of Muslims by a white terrorist in two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand in March, hijab has been spun as a symbol of Muslim women’s identity, and even faith. Wearing a hijab by white women was projected as a way of expressing solidarity with Muslims. Ilhan Omar, the US representative for Minnesota, said hijab meant for her “power, liberation, beauty, and resistance” in a recent interview to Vogue magazine.
Less than a month before Omar made these comments, another Muslim woman discovered hijab meant exactly the opposite to her. Vida Movahedi was sentenced by a court in Iran to one year in prison for “encouraging corruption and debauchery”. Her offence? Last year in October, Movahedi was arrested when she stood on a pillar box in Tehran’s Enghelab Square, removed her hijab and raised it on a stick in an act of defiance against the Iranian law that forces women to wear hijab.
The video of Movahedi’s protest went viral, and she became the face of mass protests in Iran and an icon for women who resist the hijab law. Few know her name outside Iran. Most certainly Omar did not — or cared not to. Otherwise she would have also told Vogue that hijab might mean “power, liberation, beauty, and resistance” to her in the US but it symbolised terror and horror for Muslim women at many places elsewhere.
As Omar celebrates her “power and liberation” through hijab, Movahedi would sit in jail wondering how a piece of cloth can ruin her life. Omar would also not know — or care not to — of Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer who had been awarded 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for defending women like Movahedi who protested against the hijab law. Omar recently made an appeal to US President Donald Trump to call for release of Hoda Abdelmonem, a member of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement which many see as a terrorist organisation. Clearly, Omar knows where her priorities lie.
Recently, Trump has been accused of putting Omar’s life at risk by writing several posts on Twitter critical of her politics. Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said Fox News host Jeanine Pirro’s remarks about Omar’s hijab put Omar’s life under threat. “Understand when Jeanine Pirro goes on Fox + rallies people to think hijabs are threatening, it leads to this. Folks who imply we’re ‘bad’ for politics, the party, the country, etc. have no idea the threats we deal w/ because of that kind of language. Talk policy, not personal,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.
It completely escapes Omar as well as Ocasio-Cortez how Omar’s comments on hijab can jeopardise lives of millions of Muslim women in many countries who have to deal with draconian hijab laws. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern covering her head to express solidarity with Muslims after the Christchurch terror attack too had evoked concerns among many Muslim women.
“When we see non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity of Muslim women it is very ironic and contradictory because our experience with the hijab is not empowering or uplifting in the political sense,” Maryam Lee, a Muslim women’s rights advocate and author in Malaysia, had told Reuters in March.
What Lee said further should wake up Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, if they are not pretending to be asleep — women in Malaysia opting not to wear headscarves would now receive more harassment and pressure to wear the hijab by Muslims citing Ardern’s actions, she told Reuters. Now, alongwith Ardern, Omar is another reason for many Muslim women to be more afraid and feel lonelier in their resistance.
Omar would know the connection between hijab and “power, liberation, beauty, and resistance” if she looks at photographs taken by famous Iranian photographer Hengameh Golestan in 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 always out of home. On March 8, 1979, the International Women’s Day, women came out in the streets in protest against the hijab rule.
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. 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.
Iranian women would carry on their struggle valiantly as before even though now they have more and stronger adversaries like Omar in places from where they would have expected solidarity.