Why The #MenInHijab Protest Is Problematic

By Salma Haidrani

It’s not every day that you see selfies of men donning headscarves on Instagram. But in the first week of August, nestled among endless #AvoOnToast snaps and #OOTD on my feed, it kept cropping up, accompanied by the hashtag #MenInHijab.

The brainchild of New York-based journalist and human rights activist, Masih Alinejad, #MenInHijab — which invites men to snap photos of themselves in hijabs alongside women with their hair uncovered — is the first initiative of its kind to challenge compulsory veiling in Iran.“Women have to hide their identities, personalities, and true selves under compulsory hijab,” Alinejad tells me. “My aim is to promote the unjust compulsory hijab rules, so the world knows that not all Iranian women want to wear the hijab. We need freedom to choose to determine who we are.”

It’s not hard to argue with that: Since compulsory veiling was enforced in 1979, Iranian women’s bodies have been public property and policed — often quite literally. In 2014, an astonishing 3.6 million women were warned, fined, or arrested for cases of “badly worn hijabs” by the so-called Morality Police. In some cases, acid has even been used as a weapon against “badly veiled” women. Meanwhile, a senior cleric even went so far as to link women dressing in Western clothes to causing Iran’s rivers drying up (yes, really).

No wonder, then, that the #MenInHijab campaign — which seems to mark the first time in Iranian history that men have so vocally challenged compulsory veiling — has been so celebrated. Alinejad agrees: “The campaign is out of control! And I mean that in a good way. I’m getting lots of photographs from inside Iran . . . and there are non-Iranians from all over the world who are sending their photos. The whole issue has touched a nerve.”

Even so, as #MenInHijab photos continued to go viral across social media — amassing many thousands of likes, shares, and comments — and to dominate my own Twitter and Instagram feeds, I couldn’t shake off the unease that had started building. As the protest continued to gain momentum, it was soon replaced by frustration. I couldn’t ignore the rising suspicion that the protest resonated with the international community largely because Middle Eastern women — and Muslim women at that — have long been assumed to “need” liberating. Even the most cursory glance at international headlines — like “Iranian men are wearing hijabs to protest Islamic sexism” — seemed to support the notion that Iranian women required “saving.”

This isn’t the first time that Muslim women like me have been on the receiving end of this damaging narrative. Just take Laura Bush’s speech back in November 2001, not long after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan: “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”

The irony that the First Lady used women’s rights to sell the war in Afghanistan when the U.S.’ own record on women’s rights remains questionable wasn’t lost on me, either. The U.S. is a country, after all, where Purvi Patel received a 30-year sentence for allegedly inducing her abortion for what she maintains was a miscarriage (although this has since been overturned), while Planned Parenthood has long been the targets of attacks from Republicans and self-confessed “baby warriors.”

And this hypocritical, dangerous rhetoric just keeps getting perpetuated. Donald Trump recently criticized the mother of slain soldier Captain Humayun Khan by saying, “I’d like to hear his wife say something. Probably maybe she wasn’t allowed to say something.” Meanwhile, here in the UK, former Prime Minister David Cameron dubbed British Muslim women as “traditionally submissive,” even going so far as to link this to terrorism.

While I don’t wear the headscarf myself, I resent the notion that I — and millions of other Muslim women — are in desperate need of intervention from outside forces. And while I welcome the strides the #MenInHijab movement is making — no woman should be forced into wearing anything that compromises their identity — it’s problematic that the protest is somewhat complicit (albeit unintentionally) in perpetuating this outdated notion.

At the heart of all this is a key distinction often lost in the discourse surrounding women and hijabs: the difference between being forced to wear the headscarf, and choosing to wear it. It’s frustrating that the hijab is used as a tool to oppress women in Iran when for many Muslim women the world over, donning one is a personal choice. Nur Syafieh, a student, is one of them: “The hijab is my choice and in no way does this rob me of my intellect.” For Zaynab, a London-based Education Advisor, it’s been instrumental to her confidence: “A Muslim woman can and should be confident in herself; that’s what hijab really allows you to develop — yourself. I’ve actually found that it helps me stand out in a unique way at work.” Alinejad herself has acknowledged that this narrative has impacted her campaign, noting that many Muslims have distanced themselves and been unwilling to criticize the headscarf since Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has intensified.

The way this campaign tapped into the dangerous Muslim-woman-in-need-of-a-Western-“savior” narrative wasn’t the only issue I found with it. I couldn’t ignore how Iranian women were “secondary” figures in a protest that specifically sought to liberate them: Mothers, sisters, and wives with their hair uncovered posed alongside men in their selfies, as if they were the supporting cast. Alinejad, however, is adamant that this isn’t the case: “It’s women who have been at the forefront of our campaign against compulsory hijab. We appreciate the support that men have provided but it is the women who take all the risks,” she tells me.

And it’s the “least men can do to show their support to women,” she adds. “When the Islamic Republic constantly propagates that a man’s honor depends on his wife’s veil, they simply wanted to show that their comprehension of honor has got nothing to do with forcefully imposing a dress on women.” You can see Alinejad’s point: From the March on Washington, where a quarter of the civil rights activists were white, to the important efforts of LGBT allies, hard-won triumphs for equality can arguably be partly attributed to the “mainstream” collaborating with the minority. If Iranian men are showing their solidarity, then surely their support should also be welcomed?

But it was still hard to shake off the doubt that the international media responded to the protests only because men — and not women — took a stance. This headline alone — “Men in Iran are wearing the hijab to support their wives” — seems to suggest that women were wholly reliant on their support, as if they were incapable of rendering mass support or were ineffective on their own.

This male-focused discourse overlooks the fact that Iranian women have long campaigned against the compulsory hijab — it’s just that these efforts have rarely “taken off” in a similar fashion. Protests led by women against compulsory hijab date back to when the ruling was first made nearly 40 years ago, and continue today. Earlier last month, for example, some Iranian women resorted to cutting their hair short and dressing like men to bypass the morality police — like a cropped-haired, androgynously dressed woman who took to Facebook to defend her actions: “I am an Iranian girl. In order to avoid the morality police, I decided to cut my hair short and wear men’s clothes so that I can freely walk in the streets in Iran.”

It’s worth asking why this story was largely absent from the news agenda, while #MenInHijab has earned itself countless page results.

Still, despite the campaign’s limitations — and Alinejad’s unwillingness to accept them — I welcome her ongoing efforts to challenge the decades-old ruling. The internet is, after all, a place where it is much tougher to police women. “It’s not without its own perils. There are dangers as repressive regimes have learned to monitor, threaten, and attack those they don’t like,” she agrees. “[But] it allows human rights campaigners like myself a platform where the playing field is not so much against us. If we don’t get involved, what is the alternative? Despair. Never.”

She also assures me that this is only the beginning of efforts for needed progress. “Until we get rid of compulsory hijab and get equal rights for women,” she says, there will be countless challenges against the laws. And, she adds, “We will be successful.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to find fault with the essence of what Alinejad is calling for — to stop equating “a woman’s honor [with] a piece of cloth.”

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Lead image: Instagram

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