The current happenings within Iran are particularly ugly. Dozens of women are seen burning their Hijab in the name of liberalism (“democracy” and “freedom”).
The madness doesn’t stop there. They seem to also be receiving support from apparently “religious” women and men (who evidently completely miss the symbolism entailed by such an action).
And all of this goes way beyond just Iran and its current rulers.
Local Liberal-Modernists Against the Hijab
The Hijab would of course be repulsive to liberal-modernists. It encapsulates an entire worldview surrounding segregation of the sexes and an entire array of gender dynamics which are completely incompatible with the role assigned to women within a secularized society.
In fact, even when a woman’s Hijab does not conform to Islamic laws and regulations, it still sends signals so strong that they’re able to destabilize the very foundations of a society which has become gynocentric due to decades of cultural feminism.
It is thus natural that, even within the Islamic world, the liberal-modernists and reformists stand in opposition to it. They feel a particular deep-rooted resentment towards something that they themselves describe as being “just a piece of cloth.”
Anyway, as we began with Iran, let us focus a little on this country.
Let’s start with some simple truths. The Hijab was so strongly ingrained within pre-modern Persian culture that when Persian men witnessed unveiled women in places like the Ottoman Empire they were utterly bewildered, to the extent that they would even doubt the Islam of these Hijab-less women.
Afsaneh Najmabadi (Iranian historian and self-styled “Muslim feminist“) writes in her book, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (p. 134):
The uncoveredness of European women and the coveredness of Iranian women were repeatedly signaled in the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Persian travelogues as something that connoted a difference in the sense of being-in-the-world. Iranians not only reported uncovered women in Europe as a sign of difference but also expressed anxiety when they saw women with uncovered faces in cities of the Caucasus, in Istanbul or Cairo: these cities with overwhelmingly Muslim populations were no longer or would soon cease to be Muslim and would become Europeanized. The production of the veil as a key marker was also achieved by Europeans’ frequent interrogation of Iranian men about “their women’s veil.”
This is probably how the average Muslim male felt in much of the Islamic world. But fast-forward to today and see how swift and erosive liberalization is. Rather than encourage the wearing of Hijab, the descendants of those very same men are now assisting their daughters in burning the Hijab.
Like in other places, “local” liberal-modernists began to criticize the Hijab in Iran from the later part of the 19th century.
Another point worth noting is that the Babi and Baha’i religious reformists also opposed the Hijab, which goes to show that religious reformism is just another extension of liberal-modernism.
Najmabadi continues (p. 134):
By the mid–nineteenth century, in the writings of a number of modernists, most prominently Akhundzadah and later Mirza Aqa Khan Kirmani, this sense of difference had been translated into the veil as a sign of societal backwardness. This translation was in part informed by the Babi (and later Baha’i) movements and in particular by the spectacular and fablized public unveiling act of Qurrat al-‘Ayn.
But Persian men and women continued to respect the Hijab. The proof for this being that Reza Shah (a secular dictator) had to impose the kashf-e hijab decree during the ’30s, officially banning the Hijab.
Reza Shah was an admirer of Atatürk, and despite never formally outlawing it within the public space, Kemalism’s detestation of the Hijab is well-known.
Afghanistan’s “emir-king” Amanullah Khan was another admirer of Atatürk. He went as far as publicly parading his wife, Soraya Tarzi, without Hijab as part of his “modernization” drive.
The average rural and conservative Afghan did not appreciate any of this. Khan was thus removed from his throne by Habibullah Kalakani and his men. Kalakani had launched a mass revolt because of Khan’s views about women, especially in relation to mandatory female education.
Then there’s the Arab world.
Egypt’s Qasim Amin (a liberal-modernist close to Mohammad Abduh) who, at the end of the 19th century, wrote books about how the liberation of women could only be achieved through banning the Hijab.
Then you have Huda Sha’arawi, also from Egypt and yet another admirer of Atatürk. She is the woman responsible for the country’s modern feminist movement. During the ’20s she publicly removed her veil (though her “Hijab” was never really correct to begin with).
And again in Egypt there was the secular dictator Nasser, who was well-known for his stance against the Hijab.
In fact even the late Nawal El Saadawi, one of the most vile modern feminists to have ever emerged from the Arab world, was also an Egyptian.
Of course, with the Arab world, all of this was not restricted to Egypt alone.
Mohamed Talbi for example, Tunisia’s reformist “intellectual,” was infamous for his hostility towards the Hijab.
We could easily list countless examples of liberal-modernist intellectuals and rulers, often but not always hiding behind reformism, who adopted a proactive stance against the Hijab.
Foreign Imperialists Against the Hijab
Since we’ve taken a quick look at various liberal-modernists from within, let’s also examine some of those of the same ideology who are external.
The French colonization of Algeria is still remembered for its exceptionally unique display of barbarism, and the fight against the Hijab was an important part of the wider destruction of the Algerian-Muslim civilization.
There’s even an entire book on the issue—Neil McMaster’s Burning the Veil: The Algerian war and the ’emancipation’ of Muslim women, 1954-62.
The book is all about how, when the Algerian-Muslims started seeking liberation from French-liberal rule, the French began to target the women through the rhetoric of “emancipation.” In reality however, this was merely a ploy to destroy the Algerian-Muslim family unit because the resistance among Muslims has always been based on strong familial (and thus tribal) networks.
There’s a lot of information that can be taken from this book. For example, it explains (on p. 27) how European women participated in this process of corrupting Muslim women regardless of whether they were communists or “Christian militants.”
But what is perplexing is how the author himself uses the word “ritual” for the public Hijab-burning shows which took place under both liberal France and the communist Soviet Union. Once again this demonstrates that despite outward ideological differences, there are core modernist similarities.
McMaster writes on pp. 127-128 :
By far the closest parallel to the French reforming agenda in Algeria was that of the Soviet Union in Central Asia between 1919 and 1929, when a highly secular and revolutionary power attempted, within a colonial context, to use a drive for the emancipation of Muslim women as a means to penetrate and control Islamic-tribal societies that were extremely resistant to any ‘civilising mission’. […]
The most well-known aspect of the Soviet emancipation drive, reported widely in the international press, was the great processions of thousands of Muslim women in Uzbekistan that began in March 1927. The columns, organised by party officials and guarded by militiamen, surged through the urban centres and, fired up by female orators, revolutionary songs and music, proceeded to the en masse burning of the veil or to the forced unveiling of richer, conservative women. […]
As Borrmans notes, the iconoclastic image of the burning veil was also diffused in popular culture through The Fall of the Veil of the celebrated singer al-Zahâwî:
Tear off your veil, O daughter of Iraq
Unveil yourself, since life demands a profound change
Tear it up; thrown it without delay into the fi re
Since for you it provides a misleading protection.
Elaborate unveiling rituals were organised by the army in separate events on the 17 and 18 of May […] as darkness descended, a group of about twelve young Algerian women, guarded by harkis, burned their veils inside the protective iron gates of the General Government. The army photographer Daudu took nine pictures of the scene, which he called a ‘symbolic auto-da-fé’, which show a group of apprehensive girls aged about fourteen to sixteen being encouraged by two older Algerian women dressed in a European style and an elegant European woman, probably the wife of General Salan.
French liberal or Russian communist—it doesn’t matter. As a modernist, burning the Hijab literally becomes some kind of performative modernist ritual which proselytizes the modernist approach to gender.
Now, how did the Muslim women react to these Hijab-burning public rituals?
Douglas Northrop opines in Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (p. 187):
How did Uzbek women respond? The view held by Soviet as well as some Western feminist scholars stresses their positive reaction, heroically burning their veils and signing up for literacy classes and job-training programs in the face of vicious attacks by local men. Much evidence, however, suggests that Uzbek women often responded much like Uzbek men. For obvious reasons this evidence can be difficult to tease out of Soviet sources; issues of class and agency also cloud the picture. It is impossible, too, to render definitive judgments about “the” Uzbek woman, or to speak too sweepingly about all Uzbek women. Yet some Uzbek women did play a role in undercutting the Soviet narrative of liberation, and many others resisted-or at a minimum did not support-the wholesale recasting of gender norms by a foreign, urban, infidel Bolshevik regime.