Credit: Unsplash.

The war against women’s clothing laws

By Zainab Mahmod

Why has the veil become a symbol of oppression?

On 13 September 2022,  22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by “morality police”  in Tehran. The detainment was justified as allegedly breaking modesty laws that have been implemented since 1979. Mahsa died shortly after having spent three days in a coma. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed and Mahsa’s family have received no autopsy. Since 19 September, the country has entered a national internet shutdown following widespread protests across many cities. The story of Mahsa Amini’s death has incited global unrest over Iran’s strict clothing laws that affect mostly women. As women cut their hair and burn their hijabs in solidarity, out of pain and anger, the thought comes to mind. When did this piece of material become so heavily controversial? 

The veil is mandatory in two countries currently, Iran and Afghanistan. According to the Georgetown Institute Women Peace and Security Index (GIWPS), Iran ranks 125th out of 170 and Afghanistan ranks 170th out of 170. Women living in both countries are subjected to inequalities larger than just clothing. However, in the same index, Denmark ranks 4th and Switzerland ranks 6th with both countries having banned the burqa – a variation of the veil covering the hair and face. Issues with women’s clothing seem to occur even in the most developed of nations where women’s rights are satisfactory. Is it really about the veil then, or something larger?

In Iran, most women who choose not to follow mandatory dress codes are alienated. They are associated with the violation of Islamic morals, and face consequences like defamation of their families, and even a fate akin to that of Mahsa Amini. These high stakes are incredibly suffocating for any woman who simply wants to live her life. A mandatory veil is not just a section of fabric across the head, it is the statement that the woman must live according to what her male superiors suggest. When they would like her uncovered, the law must demand it – and when they would like her covered, the law must also demand it. Of course, it’s very easy to see why this frustrates women. 

In many Western countries, the polarising extreme creates a naive, submissive image of a veiled woman. This theoretical woman has not learnt that she is brainwashed and must be educated through media, regulations, and schooling. Her choice (if it is even considered as one) is seen as a political statement against Western culture and a reversion to primitiveness. It doesn’t just stop at opinions, there are legislative measures in place to control what is allowed to be covered. To what degree is she allowed to cover? At the beach? Her hair? Her eyes? Just the mid-section? But after a whole lot of debate, it is still not enough for a woman to express that what she wears, no matter how covered or not, should be her choice. Why aren’t men subjected to these degrading ultimatums? 

In my own experience, living between two starkly different cultures, I found shame ingrained in both.

Shame that would most of the time regard my appearance. Whether I was modest or not, covered my hair or not, wore too much makeup or not;  I was incredibly conscious of how I was portraying myself. What was deemed respectable or not. This hyper-awareness only made me self-conscious and bitter towards other women who were confident in their choices. That was the patriarchal agenda.   

Unfortunately, I find this culture upheld by many women. The act of sanctimony to separate “pious” women from their “debauched” peers. A woman who is modest is worth more to Middle Eastern society and can benefit from taking part in subjugation. The opposite in Western society, is the woman who speaks over a veiled woman, insisting she is not making her own choice and is guided by her male counterparts. She labels the veiled woman’s choice as “anti-feminist” and assists the discriminatory divide. 

The focus on women’s appearance is part of nearly all cultures. It even feels silly to ask why men care what women wear? Women have been fighting to be freed from this microscopic lens with which their bodies are examined. The problem has nothing to do with the veil, or women, but more exclusively with the patriarchal systems that aim to control a woman’s choice. Clothing is outwardly the biggest show of individuality. Femicide is promoted by ideas of chastity and control. The longer we allow these ideas to fester under the guise of ‘culture’  the more dangerous they become to women. The revolution happening in Iran will only grow larger, and it is our duty to support those who display such remarkable bravery.


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments