The simple right to be who we are

Even in the new millennium, in relatively freer countries than Iran, we can’t assume that our rights don’t have to be consistently renewed and defended

Harini CalamurUpdated: Sunday, September 25, 2022, 10:27 PM IST
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There is a photograph making its mark on the internet. No one quite knows its origin or source. It is a photograph of a flag fluttering in the sky. However, unlike most flags, this is not made of cloth. It is a flag made of human hair. More specifically, long tresses chopped off. It is the flag of revolution. The flag that women in Iran have raised against the regime that suppresses them, to say “Enough – no more. We are free. Treat us with respect.”

Earlier this month, a young woman called Mahsa Amini died after facing police brutality. Her ‘crime’ – a bit of hair peeking out from under her hijab. Since her murder, women across Iran, are burning their hijabs, and cutting off their hair in public. One of the saddest pictures was a woman, about 60, tearing off her hijab and shouting “death to the dictator”. She might possibly have been a young woman with dreams when the Islamic revolution took place in Iran and crushed those dreams. Women’s rights, like other laws in Iran, are governed by the Council of Guardians – a group of mostly men, who interpret law and rights in accordance with the Sharia.

For the best part of four decades, since Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran and established a Republic based on fundamentalist Islamist law, women’s rights have been crushed. And the most visible aspect of the crushing was the attire forced on them. Women, even tourists, had to cover their head with a Hijab, with not even a strand of hair showing. There were a strictly enforced ‘modesty law’ that governed everything from the tightness of jeans to the transparency of blouses, to the length of sleeves, and the amount of ankle that peeked out from under the mandatory long coat that had to be worn. And all this was strictly enforced by the modesty police.

Be it Iran or Afghanistan, the women have borne the worst excesses of fundamentalist right-wing Islam —their dreams crushed, their aspirations confined, and their freedoms curtailed. And every small glimmer of freedoms is followed by the massive clampdown on women’s rights. Last month, there were quiet celebrations as women were allowed to enter a stadium to watch a football match.

While countries like Iran and Afghanistan stand out in the excesses committed against women, they aren’t the only ones placing restrictions on women’s rights. Across the world, for the last 20 years, there has been a revival of fundamentalist religion, which demands adherence to the written word of their holy books. Poland, that is mostly Catholic, has rolled back abortion rights for women, except in cases of rape, incest and threat to the woman’s health.

Let us look at the self-appointed “leader of the free world”, the United States of America. Since the 1980s there has been a growing influence of extreme right-wing groups in their electoral politics. Amongst the most regressive of these right-wing groups are those sponsored by the Evangelical Churches and their ministries — and these rail against women’s rights especially the right to freely access reproductive health services, including abortion. Under their influence not only has the landmark Roe v/s Wade judgement that allowed easy access to abortion as a right been overturned, but the need to persecute women who have had abortions is on the rise. The nation that lectures the world on freedoms is going to force its own female citizens to bear babies. The laws in their more backward states are so fundamentalist that recently a 10-year-old girl in the mostly agrarian state of Ohio, was denied an abortion, after a pregnancy that resulted from an adult male (in his late 20s) raping her. She had to flee to another state to get an abortion — a medical treatment which would be par for the course in most civilised nations.

A century after the suffragette movement began the process of recognising women as equal citizens, we find the forces of patriarchy making a comeback in a variety of garbs. And usually, this garb is in the name of religion. The patriarchy has found it convenient to curb the rights of women in the name of faith and tradition – irrespective of whether their holy books called for it or not. From men and women talking of women as baby producing machines, whose role it is to populate the world with their kind (religion, race, caste); to looking at women as temptresses who will lead men astray – and therefore the need to swaddle them up; to those advocating the greatest liberation being a traditional role — women’s rights as equal citizens are under threat. And where women’s rights are curtailed, so will the rights of others. Women’s rights are human rights and depriving half the population of their right to be will only result in the other 50% also losing their rights eventually. For all of us in relatively freer countries, we can’t make the mistake of our sisters in countries like the US or Poland and assume that our rights don’t have to be consistently renewed and defended. If we aren’t vigilant, if we don’t vote as women for issues that concern women — then we can be that woman in the USA, crossing state borders, surreptitiously, to get rights that are the norm elsewhere.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur

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