Fatemeh Sadeghi has a Ph.D. in political science and has taught at the Islamic Azad University of Karaj near Tehran. She is the daughter of Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali. In this courageous article, published in May 2008, she challenges the oppression of women in Iran today. Soon after the publication of this article, she was suspended from her teaching post at the University of Karaj. A number of students protested her suspension.
Why We say “No” to the Compulsory Hijab?
By Fatemeh Sadeghi
Translated by Frieda Afary
Translator’s Note: Fatemeh Sadeghi has a Ph.D. in political science and has taught at the Islamic Azad University of Karaj near Tehran. She is the daughter of Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali. The following are translated excerpts from an article entitled “Why the Hijab?” which she published in the feminist website Meydaneh Zan (Women’s Field) on May 14, 2008. Soon after the publication of this article, she was suspended from her teaching post. A number of students at the Azad University of Karaj protested her suspension.
. . . Let me tell you about how my painful experience with the hijab started. I remember the day when I had to wear a headscarf for the first time in front of the boys in our family who were my playmates and often competitors. I felt humiliated. I felt paralyzed and crushed in their eyes. I could especially read the following message in the eyes of one of them: “See how your were vanquished?” The story was not just about covering my body. It was much more. On many occasions when I was busy playing or preoccupied with myself, I heard chiding voices from various corners: “Sit properly. Straighten your outfit. All your body parts are uncovered. Pull you scarf forward, Your veil is too far back on your head, Your neck is showing, Your hair is showing etc . . . “ I never knew the meaning behind these reprimands and even why I was being addressed in such a manner.
The personal experiences and humiliation which the hijab has caused me and many others, cannot be found in any of the precious and often reprinted books of the clergy in Qum. Less can it be found in the colorful poems which are force fed us in honor of this momentous task. Let me tell you that after those childhood experiences, the most humiliating sentence about the hijab which I have heard, has been the following: “For a woman, the hijab is like a pearl which covers a jewel.” I could tolerate more respectable sentences such as “Sister, your hijab is a more powerful weapon than my blood.” But I could never tolerate the former sentence.
The former sentence contains an insult which can be understood by any human being. Without having met the creators of that sentence, I can tell that they were experts in the psychology of personality disorders. Can you guess why? This sentence combines praise and humiliation. A woman is praised but only as a being who must be beautiful. Anyway, you know this better than I do. In the latter sentence however, I sense a type of respect. I like its combativeness along with the respect that it has for my femininity, even though it does not understand me and dismisses me as a woman.
As I was growing up, I realized that this story has gained more complex dimensions. Soon I understood that there is a difference between the headscarf and the veil. If the headscarf was to sexually control me –although very unsuccessfully– or to pull me out of the realm of childhood and force me to become a woman, the veil was something else. I could see that my mother and many other women around me, used the veil in a variety of ways. They did not wear the same veil at all places and they did not cover themselves as tightly in all places. Especially when a grand clergyman was to visit our house or when we were to visit a grand clergyman, they would hold their veils more tightly. Naturally under these circumstances, I was told, “Watch your hijab,” meaning, hold it more tightly. Were these men considered more representative of the outsider category [namahram in Persian refers to a non-kin with whom a man or woman may not associate closely ] than other men? I think so. The higher the class and rank [of a man], the more the [woman’s] face was to be covered. The hijab had an inextricable relationship with power.
The veil was not just a cover. It allowed for thousands of ways of establishing distance, symbolic gestures, blending in, differentiating oneself, and giving or gaining benefits. I too had to learn how to use the veil in the aristocratic hierarchy of power of the clergy. I had to learn how to use it as an instrument of power and impose it on others. I had to learn how to use the cues to become a prominent person among other prominent people, to become recognized, to become seen, to gain benefits. I proved not talented at this task.
Wearing the headscarf or the overcoat was not enough. Thus, the first time I surreptitiously tried wearing an overcoat and a headscarf, I felt naked. Now I know that more than any feeling of physical nakedness, what made me distressed and confused was the loss of the consequences [of wearing the veil], all the symbols, the benefits and distinction and prominence, the aristocracy. Nevertheless, wearing the overcoat and the headscarf had an adventurous and awesome benefit despite the fear and the dangers. Along with many other consequences, losing the social and political benefits that accompanied the hijab and the veil forced me to step in a different direction. By wearing the overcoat and headscard I became empty and lost my identity. Now I needed to build a new identity.
When I asked a very famous clergyman whether the hijab was based on Sharia law, he said something along the lines of the following: “There in no such hijab in Sharia law. The question concerns the civil code.” Another who was a famous clergyman of his time and taught at the Hawzah [Reference to the Assmbly of Seminary Scholars and Researchers in the city of Qum, the largest center of Shia scholarship in the world] and at a university, revealed that in Sharia law, the hijab does not even mean covering one’s head. He surprised me by inviting me to reconsider my own manner of covering my body. Nevertheless, neither of these clergymen ever openly expressed his viewpoint in public. Similarly many others do not. We know that the few who have had the courage to express their views have been defrocked and punished in other ways.
For those who have experienced these times, the works of Mr. Mottahari and his likes cannot answer the above simple questions, even if they are published thousands more times thanks to the large budgets of the Ministry of Culture and the Organization of Islamic Propaganda. Mottahari himself was well aware of the fact that the viewpoint of the reactionary clergy can no longer answer the questions of the new generation. That is why he named his book, “The Question of the Hijab” and tried to adopt a so called scientific attitude toward this momentous subject.
Everyone knows well that there is only one solution to the question of the hijab: Covering oneself should be left to women’s individual choice. If the institution of the family, society and Islamic government depends on the hijab, then the problem is to be found in that institution, the foundation of that family, that society and that government, all of which require bold but necessary revision. But in reality this will not happen, at least not in the near future. Today, the attitude of the Islamic regime or at least important parts of it are more confrontational toward women than ever. Such a confrontational attitude toward women is unprecedented among incumbent administrations since the beginning of the revolution . One has to ask what is causing this brutality of which the attitude toward the hijab is only one of many dimensions.
Hijab and the Mission of the Holy Government
Perhaps no government in the world except the American neo-conservatives or former Communist regimes, is like ours in the following sense: The hold on power and the control over the masses either through luck or through severe repression of dissidents and through the use of force, is considered holy. It is so holy that they dare to take any action against citizens without being concerned about the consequences.
Occurrences such as the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo and others which are intended to export so-called democracy to the world stem from the illusion of a holy mission similar to that which is promoted by the discourse of the rulers of the Islamic regime concerning global justice and the so-called salvation of the world. Clearly this discourse is in fact an instrument for mending the crisis of political legitimacy pertaining to governments which face it internally and externally.
The rhetoric of a holy mission is openly associated with violence because it is deeply connected to the crisis of legitimacy. At a time when our country is on the verge of many kinds of social and economic crises, it is no accident that new plans for social policing arise in new forms and promote violence anew. Of course no one answers the simple question of how this holy mission will be performed given the depth of the internal dissatisfaction.
Why We Say “No” to the Compulsory Hijab
As women we have been critiquing and will critique the varieties of the compulsory hijab for years. We have done so in implicit and explicit ways, with irony, protest, argumentation, civil resistance and in many other forms. Today, given the confrontational attitude of the Islamic regime, it seems that we need to speak about this issue again. We have to say “no” to it. We have to start a new discourse. They cannot put an end to this matter simply and with an order from this or that commander and the arrests of many women on the streets and private companies, and the firing of women office workers. I believe that a major confrontation is on the way. This is a confrontation that the perpetrators of the “social safety plans” and “the elevation of public decency” have initiated. . .