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More Than Pieces of Cloth

by Thaabit Kamaar
Photo by [Stars & Stripes]


Headscarves have always been culturally significant in every society. It embodies religious, traditional and practical values.

Scarves are commonly found in African, European, Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. In a religious context, they are all worn for the same purpose: to protect oneself from vanity, encourage modesty and maintain privacy.

However, they are subjected to fluid signification across all cultures. It can mean different things to different people in other contexts. It’s used for beautification, inferring cultural identity and abusing political agendas.

But in recent years, there has been a stigma surrounding the headscarf, especially in the case of the Hijab. The word itself breeds negative connotations, reinforced by Islamophobic rhetoric.

The word essentially means to cover oneself. In a way, we all wear Hijabs. The same clothes we wear are intended to cover and protect our modesty.

Traditionally we’d visualise the bride’s veil worn as a kind of ‘covering’ before she’s revealed to her groom. Over the years, it went from meaning virginity and purity to something else for various people.

Like the bride’s veil, the Hijab signifies protection of one’s modesty, spirituality and integrity. Yet, in some societies, it’s portrayed as a symbol of oppression. It all depends on the lens from which we view it.


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The History of the Headscarf

During slavery, headscarves denoted social class. It served to separate the enslaved Africans from their white overlords. However, it also served as a way for enslaved people to connect to their African heritage. A connection still prevalent in the headdresses worn by overseas African artists and musicians.

In South Africa, many people from different cultures wear the ‘doek’ to cover their hair as a sign of respect for their traditional heritage. It’s worn to commemorate the lives and practices of their elders.

We are incredibly fortunate we live in a country where people celebrate and practice different religions and traditions, where something such as a doek, Hijab and Tichel is respected and held in high regard.

As for the rest of the world, Muslim attire, specifically the Hijab, is constantly targeted and criticised to the point where it’s banned in certain public spheres worldwide.

Many European countries have been criticised for banning Muslim women and children from wearing the Hijab. Recently an Indian court upheld a ban that prevented Muslim children from wearing Hijabs in school.

Scarves Used as a Political Tool

As I’ve said, the meaning of scarves is subjective. The garment carries generations worth of signification.

Traditional pieces of clothing serve as a reminder for an individual, an identity marker, and a point of reference in the face of more dominant and influential cultures.

The most famous of all headscarves must be the checkered Palestinian Keffiyeh. It’s a scarf worn by Palestinians to symbolise their struggle and resistance against the illegal occupation of Israel.

A few years ago, there were efforts made by individuals who appropriated the Keffiyeh by making it a fashion accessory. However, it did not deter people from interpreting it as a call to resistance.

In Argentina, Mothers gathered every Thursday for nearly four decades at Plaza de Mayo to petition for news on the lives of their “disappeared” children during the 70s and 80s.

The Mothers started wearing the white diapers of their children as headscarves with their names brandished on them. The white scarves signify unity and a continuation of the pain felt when their children were snatched, never to be seen again.

History of the Hijab in Iran

Iran has always had a complicated history with the Hijab. In 1936, Reza Shah Pahlavi banned men and women from wearing traditional clothing and headdresses, deeming conservative tradition backwards in light of western influence.

Liberal women welcomed this decree and were subsequently opposed by conservative women who preferred their cultural and modest clothing to western styles.

During the reign of Mohammed Riza Pahlavi, Iran saw substantial economic, social and political development. In this period, there was a significant mobilisation of women in all sectors. Women were allowed to vote and hold high-ranking employment in local governments and law institutions.

It also saw women being granted the right to self-determination in marriage and divorce, abortion was legal, and a girl’s marriage age was increased from 13 to 18 years old.

However progressive this may seem, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, sparked by anti-monarchy-related rhetoric, reversed the majority of the liberties and rights of women. An example of this policy regression is the marriage age for women, which went from 18 to 9 years old.

Approximately three months after the Revolution, the new Islamic Republic announced it would make wearing the Hijab mandatory. Kicking off a wave of demonstrations that carry on to this very day.

The theocracy of Iran has marginalised, liberal and conservative, women in every sector of society. And at the centre of their subjugation is the Hijab. As a result, women are persecuted, tortured and killed for their non-conformance to modesty laws.


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The Morality Police

Last month a 22-year-old Iranian woman died from an alleged “pre-existing heart condition” caused by the bodily harm inflicted by the Morality Police. Mahsa Amini was detained on the basis that she wore her Hijab incorrectly.

As South Africans, we’ve encountered similar statements under the Apartheid regime, often used to vindicate state officials from crimes committed.

The Iranian government dispatches the Morality Police to ensure laws regarding modesty are upheld in society. People who are found in contempt are fined or taken to “re-education facilities”, where they are re-taught fundamental Islamic values.

While men are also taken to these detention facilities, most detainees are women.


Global Response

The death of Amini sparked local and global outrage. Thousands of Iranian women led demonstrations across the country. They protested by removing their Hijabs in public spaces defying the laws that justified the detention of Amini.

Unfortunately, many have lost their lives during the protests by security forces. Still, one thing is sure there is a fire blazing in Iran that will not extinguish.

Solidarity with Iranian women was made known through social media, where women including international politicians, were burning Hijabs and cutting their hair.

Countries worldwide placed more pressure on Iran. A new wave of sanctions targeted the administration of the Morality Police for their crimes against women.

In Iran, women have constantly protested against the Hijab, which has been used as a political tool to form policies and reform it by the monarchy and the Islamic Republic.

Ironically, countries that prohibit Muslims from wearing the Hijab are supporting the Iranian women’s right to choose what to wear. Islamophobia is never outwardly expressed. It’s always done subtly and in plain sight.

The Hijab is scrutinised because it’s an Islamic attire. Persuasive media made sure to rid it of all positivity, comfort and security that is bestowed upon it by 1.9 billion Muslims. People say they’re burning the Hijab because Islam oppresses women.

No, they are burning it because of what it means in their history and civil contexts. The Iranian women are not fighting Islam or protesting against it. They are fighting a doctrine and theocracy that targets and marginalises them that uses the Hijab, a symbol of morality, to justify their “places” in society.

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