Why has the practice of wearing the Islamic headscarf by Muslim women become such a controversial symbol of Muslim culture? And what about it has made governments decide it will be a major factor in how they choose to control their people? These were some of the questions that I was left with after attending a panel discussion on this issue in the Fall of 2022. This panel was put on by IU’s Muslim Voices Project and focused on the stark contrasts in hijab control policies implemented by the governments of France and Iran. Policies of the French government ban this religious practice in certain settings and discriminate against those wearing it; the Iranian government strictly requires all women to wear the hijab outside of their home. In France, hijab is viewed as a symbol of Muslim oppression and often of terrorism; in Iran it has become a tool of gender oppression which has led to protests against its mandated use. Attending this panel provided me with a more in-depth understanding of the importance of symbols in culture and religion. It also showed me two different important perspectives on this issue that has become highly politicized.
The first panelist, Dr. Carol Ferrara from Emerson College, presented on the situation in France. She explained that the hijab is highly politicized and has been for a long time, with punishments for students wearing it in schools going as far back as 1989. She described how many people in France view (incorrectly) the hijab as a form of religious oppression forced on Muslim women, something that the data shows is incorrect. Lawmakers and leaders in France often use this symbol as a way to boost their public images and as a sort of easy emblem (one often maliciously associated with domestic terrorism) to attack in order to garner more votes. Since a majority of the French population unfavorably views the hijab; when this issue is addressed by politicians it’s usually in a way critical of its practice. And certainly, these politicians aren’t doing this in a vacuum, they’re doing it because it represents feelings from a majority of the public. Essentially in France, there is a strong feeling of anti-Muslim sentiment, and the hijab is the preferred symbol to direct these feelings towards.
The second panelist, Dr. Pouya Alimagham from MIT, spoke about how this religious practice has been weaponized in almost the entirely opposite direction in Iran. The hijab has been used primarily as a way to control women, as they are not allowed to be in public without wearing one. In recent times there have been several months of protests in Iran over its mandated use; these protests started when a young woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested for wearing her hijab “incorrectly” and later died in police custody. But it wasn’t just Amini’s improper use of the hijab, it was more of what that improper use represented, a rebellion against the very strict nature of the current governmental system towards its female population. Also in Iran, there are high rates of education among women and higher education leads to more questioning of the current government system which in turn incentivizes the government to focus on rules surrounding the mandatory hijab to retain control over the women. It’s clear that the hijab is much more than a symbol of Muslim culture (as it’s often viewed in France), it’s a symbol for Muslim women specifically, which is why it’s become a point of contention in Iranian politics.
I observed this panel as someone with only a basic understanding of the history and controversy surrounding this topic; but left with a lot to think about and a wider perspective on how governments attempt to control people. I gained a better understanding of the ways in which the hijab as a symbol has been weaponized in different ways by different actors; while the methods may not be the same, both in Iran and France the goal of using the hijab as a political tool for control remains similar. What this panel made abundantly clear to me was that the hijab in Iran and France is not treated as a choice made by individuals but instead as another means by which a government can control its population.
Jason Sadlowski is an undergraduate student at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. His area of interest includes the Arabic language and foreign affairs.