The cities of Tehran and Kabul were once free, cosmopolitan capitals where women dressed as they pleased. My mother, an Afghan immigrant to the United States, speaks of these times fondly. But ever since the rise of authoritarian regimes in these countries, both Iran and Afghanistan have entered a dark period.
Many of us at Harvard are aware of the protests that have erupted across Iran and the Middle East following Zhina Mahsa Amini’s death; some of us, myself included, have even rallied on the steps of Widener Library to call for justice for Amini. Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman of Kurdish descent, was detained by the Iranian morality police under the hijab law, which requires women to cover their hair under hijabs or headscarves and wear loose-fitting robes. She was taken into custody and reported dead three days later. There exist allegations that she was beaten during her detention, sparking widespread protests in Iran and beyond.
The United States has previously launched efforts to aid the persecuted women of Iran’s Islamic Republic. These efforts, however, are facades for a deeper political agenda, intended to induce Iranian surrender to U.S. demands and economic coercion. The U.S. State Department has repeatedly placed a spotlight on the suppression of Iranian women’s rights, with social media posts reminiscing on an era where Iranian women dressed openly and offering belittling praise to successful Iranian-American women. The U.S. administration has long appropriated the Iranian women’s movement to further their own political and economic programs, while blatantly disregarding the oppression faced by women under Middle Eastern governments allied with the U.S.
This is not the first or only occurrence of Western nations exerting their power in developing countries under the guise of empowering women. European colonial powers have long presented the hijab as a symbol of oppression in Asia and North Africa. In the 19th century, the British launched campaigns against the hijab in Egypt, fixated on the claim that it was an injustice against women. Such notions served as fundamental underpinnings of white saviorism, and also contributed to the development of misinformed conceptions of Middle Eastern and Muslim women.
Both historical reflection and a deeper analysis of contemporary women’s rights propaganda reveal an important truth: These countries do not need saving. Muslim women do not need saving. Control of the female body and oppression of women is not inherent to Islam, nor the countries of the East. And Western intervention will most certainly not be the solution.
Liberation is not equivalent to removal of the hijab. The dispute over the garment is rooted in its historically politicized nature, a narrative perpetuated by Western ignorance and propaganda. Islam’s deeper message about the hijab as a notion of modesty is drowned out by Western cultural assumptions that demonize the hijab as a tool of oppression and exploitation. To a Muslim woman, however, the hijab grants them control of their body. It serves as both a physical manifestation of a woman’s faith and a symbol of their personal commitment to lead a pure life.
There are women residing in Iran who firmly believe in the virtue of their hijab, while there are also women who would give up their hijabs at once — if given the choice. Liberation, therefore, is equivalent to the ability to exercise this choice and bodily autonomy.
The women’s movement in Iran runs much deeper than a piece of cloth covering the hair. It is rooted in a long-brewing exhaustion with authoritarian regimes that continue to deny women freedom and agency. Mahsa Amini’s death and the protests that have erupted in response are not a demonstration against Islam, but rather, the broader issue of policing a woman’s ability to choose — to choose to wear the hijab, however one pleases.
As a Muslim woman of Persian heritage, I stand in solidarity with Mahsa Amini. I commend the Iranian women actively protesting and fighting for change, and for demonstrating purposeful resilience against authority that has historically politicized and policed women’s bodies. And I hope for a day where I can share my mother’s memories, a day where women truly embody the freedom they so rightfully deserve. As we, in Harvard, the United States, and the West, extend our support for the women in Iran, we must ensure we are fighting for this freedom of choice — not the Western notion of freedom from the hijab.
Alaha A. Nasari ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History and Science concentrator in Cabot House.