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Iran, Mahsa Amini and the double standards of Islamic countries

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Mahsa Amini was arrested by the morality police and then died in police custody

On February 18 this year, a group of Iranian female students demonstrated outside the Indian Embassy in Tehran to demand that girls be allowed to wear the hijab in colleges in Karnataka despite the ban on prescribed uniforms. These protesting students claimed, according to a report, that the hijab restrictions were discriminatory against Muslims. More importantly, they claimed that these restrictions were, according to the report, “a violation of the fundamental human right to freedom of dress.” The protest is believed to have been “state sponsored”. The Karnataka hijab case has been heard by the Supreme Court of India and its judgment is reserved. The Karnataka hijab issue is India’s internal affairs and in terms of international law, the government and people of Iran have no right to interfere in this controversy.

Over the past week, Iran has witnessed large-scale protests in several cities where 41 people are believed to have lost their lives. These protest demonstrations were triggered by the death on September 16 of a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, while she was detained by the country’s vice police. The Amini episode reveals the hypocrisy of the Iranian state. Why? Because it demands that other countries respect the “basic human right to freedom of dress” while denying that same right to its own women.

Wearing the hijab by women is a social custom in many Muslim countries. The same was true in Iran, but Shah Mohammad Reza Pehlavi, who ruled Iran from 1941 until its overthrow in the Ayatollah-led Islamic Revolution in 1979, allowed, even encouraged, women not to not wear hijab. Its queens and other ladies of the royal household as well as those belonging to the Iranian aristocracy and professional middle classes did not wear the hijab. At the same time, women from the conservative strata of society have not given up on the “chador”, Iran’s traditional hijab.

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Iran’s Islamic Revolution removed any notion of freedom of dress for Iranian women. Fanatics of the Revolution demanded that all women in Iran, including foreign ones, dress in accordance with Islamic practices. While Iranian women were mandated to cover themselves with the “chador”, it was mandatory for foreign women, including visiting women dignitaries, to cover themselves entirely with a coat and cover their heads with scarves. At the same time, Iranians insisted that foreign women, including female leaders, should not touch any men; therefore, diplomats have always advised women leaders visiting their countries never to reach out to Iranian male leaders! The Iranians insisted on all this in the name of Islamic practice. In fact, Iranian leaders, even when they are abroad, do not shake hands with women.

To ensure that Iranian women wear the proper Islamic dress, the institution of morality police has been established. He was given broad powers to ensure that women were kept in line in public in matters of dress and general dress. The behavior of the morality police is aggressive and many Iranians proud of their cultural heritage find them offensive.

Mahsa Amini was from Kurdistan and was visiting Tehran when she was arrested on September 13 by morality police for allegedly not wearing the hijab properly because her hair was partially exposed. She was held for three days and died, according to police, due to a sudden health problem while she and others were receiving “counseling”. Mahsa Amini’s family and the general public refused to believe the police version. Hence the violent demonstrations in many cities. During these protests, some women threw off their hijabs. The police used force to quell the protests.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, came under heavy pressure as the Mahsa Amini affair put Iran, once again, under the spotlight as a violator of internationally recognized human rights. He responded to the criticism by giving assurances that the incident would be investigated. The same assurance was given by other Iranian authorities to control the demonstrations. While many liberal Iranian clerics have spoken out against the authoritarianism of the morality police, it is significant that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has not commented on the incident. At the same time, the Revolutionary Guards, the traditional Islamic Revolutionary Guards, warned protesters to take tough action to control the situation.

The question is whether the protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini will have a systemic change regarding dress codes relating to Iranian women. This is unlikely because these codes are intrinsic to the very notion of good Islamic conduct and which the heirs of Khomeini’s revolution have pledged to uphold. There has always been a tug of war in Iran between what is best described by the word Hindi, the ‘rasik’ cultural mores of the Persian civilization and the norms of austere Islam. Khomeini’s revolution, with its roots in the Vilayat-e-Faqih system of governance, must have curbed the “rasik” impulses of Persian culture. It also required the pursuit of tough policies on gender issues. Sometimes concessions became necessary as they did when women had to be allowed into stadiums to view sports and games albeit from separate stands. But these measures are extended with great reluctance. Admittedly, no concessions in dress should be expected, although new practices may be prescribed for the morality police to quell public outrage and assure the people against a repeat of the Mahsa Amini affair. .

It should also be noted that Iran is not criticized by any Islamic country for the Amini incident. Indeed, the Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, questioned on this subject, expressed his full confidence in the assurances of the Iranian authorities to investigate fairly the cause of Amini’s death. And Iran would not be bothered at all by Western criticism. Meanwhile, he will continue to practice his hypocrisy by seeking freedom of dress for women in countries like India – which obviously means those who wish to wear the hijab should be allowed to do so in any situation – while denying the freedom not to wear the hijab to his own wives.

What is more hypocritical is that its leaders seek to impose Iranian dress and behavior codes on women even when they are outside Iran. This was recently seen in New York when Raisi refused to be interviewed by an internationally renowned journalist because she did not want to cover her hair and perhaps dress in a way he deemed appropriate.

The author is a former Indian diplomat who served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, and Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs. The opinions expressed are personal.

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