Restoring Balance: Global Engagement on Social Justice and Empowerment

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Mahsa Amini. (AFP)
A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Mahsa Amini. (AFP)

by Hayat Imam

Salam Aleikum! My greetings to all of you who have tuned in today. And thank you to Nasreen Shibli for inviting my distinguished colleagues, and me, to share some thoughts with you. I am grateful to Nasreen for saying, “just share what’s on your mind”, so what I thought I would do is talk about what, I am guessing, is on everybody’s minds.

I want to share my immense grief that a young girl in Iran lost her life when one hair became visible from under her headscarf. Who could have known, when she was born, cradled and welcomed by her family, a bubbling Child, charmingly growing to the cusp of womanhood, that one day, an escaping hair would get her killed? In mid June of this year, Mahsa Amini was visiting Tehran, when she was stopped by the Police for that single hair that was showing. When she protested, she was thrown into a police van, and once they reached the police station, she collapsed and died. We will never know what really happened that could have led to this healthy young woman’s demise. We have been told that these men who arrested her, dared to call themselves the Morality Police, despite the fact that there is no evidence of morality here, all that is present is force and might.

A significant fact here is that Maha Amini was a member of the Kurdish minority in Northern Iran, who speak a different language, and are from the Sunni Muslim sect, as opposed to most Iranians, who are Shia Muslims. Tensions between these two communities have created rifts for over a hundred years, with Kurds wanting more autonomy, and better economic conditions, including addressing the high unemployment rates in Kurdish areas. The central government has both neglected the Kurds, and at the same time suppressed them hard for their resistance. It would not be surprising to me if the treatment of Maha by the police was more punitive, ultimately ending up being lethal, because she was a member of the Kurdish minority.

The policing of women’s lives, and women’s bodies, are things with which, we are all too familiar. It is a historic reality we have lived with from the beginning of time. Male dominated institutions, be it clerics, governments, clans, or families, use women’s bodies as the battlefields upon which to assert their dominance and power. Those who seek to manipulate the situation, often use the cover of religious dogma for these repressions, usually misrepresenting the essence of religions, to support their full control over women.

Now let’s travel across the world to South Asia, and we will see a series of events, in a short span of time in February of this year, that are instructive. In the State of Karnataka, India, authorities declared that female high school students could no longer attend school if they wear a Hijab. This, of course, specifically affects Muslim girls who wear Hijabs. Both Muslim teachers and Muslim students were forced to remove their Hijabs at the gate, before being allowed to enter school grounds.

Since Muslim girls have long worn Hijabs to school in India, it is not clear what the reason for this crackdown was. Members of the opposition Congress Party, showed their dissent by wearing black armbands when they attended the Karnataka Legislature. These Congress members blamed Hindutva, the political beliefs of the extreme right, the ruling party that is in place in India now, with Prime Minister Modi at the head. Hindutva is an ideology that advocates Hindu supremacy, and seeks to discard India’s proud tradition as a secular nation and, instead, turn it into an ethno-religious Hindu Nation.

The Karnataka High Court has upheld the bans on Hijabs in schools, which has created a precedent for other States to follow suit. Shortly after the Karnataka incident, another situation cropped up in Murshidabad, in the State of West Bengal. The Principal of a local girls’ school refused to allow a young girl in Hijab to attend the school, and showed support for a more widespread ban on Muslim students wearing Hijabs.

Then, within days, the trauma of Muslim girls in India was quickly matched by vulnerabilities among Hindu girls in Bangladesh, across the border from India.

In a suspiciously copy cat move, a privately run Women’s Medical School in the Jessore area, decreed that the Hijab is compulsory for all students who want to attend their school, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Of course, Hindu women who do not wear the Hijab, have objected to this. But, it should be clear that Muslim women who do not wish to wear the Hijab are also affected. All those refusing to wear Hijabs are now being barred from admission into this Medical School.

The tradition among women in Bangladesh, in rural areas in particular, is to cover their heads with the ends of their saris, which is a very dignified and pleasing look. But, over time, the Hijab head covering has come to dominate the countryside, often including the “Niqab” as well, an additional veil that covers the whole face. This kind of, full on, head and face coverings are not prescribed by Islam, nor mentioned in the Quran. These are traditions that have been initiated over time by different Muslim societies, undoubtedly by groups of male leaders. These immense changes in Bangladesh have much to do with local clerics, who are funded and influenced by rich and dogmatic Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

Most crucially, however, what can be seen in the impact of these two stories from South Asia, is that some girls face a possible end to their education. The jeopardy that girls encounter from not having an education is stark and multi-layered. It includes the reality that the girls may never enter the workforce, therefore leading to early marriages for them. An uneducated girl will have less status in the eyes of her in laws; her vulnerability to physical violence might increase; she will tend to have less power over her children’s upbringing and, certainly, very little control over her finances or property.

What do little girls in Iran, India, and Bangladesh, know about the grand schemes of their leaders? They simply end up as the pawns in geopolitical games, stuck between the oppression of the States, the Religious institutions, and families who insist their daughters must cover up – or not cover up, as the case may be.

But, lest we get complacent, let us acknowledge that a version of the morality police is also alive and well in the United States, where I live.

In June of this year, in a most consequential decision, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe versus Wade, a landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that confirmed the constitutional right of women to have abortions. If the Roe decision, which has been settled law for half a century, no longer applies, then State Legislatures have a free hand to put in place draconian restrictions, such as complete bans on terminations of pregnancies, from the moment of conception on, in other words ‘pregnancy without choice’.

By one calculation, 41% of women in the United States will be affected, hitting young, poor, uneducated women the hardest. These young people have the least access to contraceptives, or to proper health education, and are often vulnerable to sexual violence. The three liberal Judges on the Supreme Court said in their dissent to the majority ruling: “Under these new conditions, a woman will have to bear her rapist’s child. And a victim of incest will have to bear her perpetrator’s.”

Now that the Court has wrenched the choice away from women and handed it to the States, 21 States are already in the first stages of complete bans. The result has been a chaotic legal landscape, with restrictions on the lives of millions. The agonizing uncertainty is the most difficult thing to navigate at this moment. The United Nations has condemned this decision by the highest legal institution in the US.

Women everywhere, and their male allies, of whom there are many, have fought together over centuries for justice, and against unacceptable terms. More than ever before, it is glaringly obvious that women have a common frame of oppression all over the world. Thus, we also have a common struggle. No one, and no State, has the right to impose their standards on us, whether it is about coverings, or un-coverings, about fertility or reproductive choices.

But, I believe, our call must be broader. We also need, and deserve, more scope, opportunity and power when it comes to social, political and economic choices. The protests in Iran, and elsewhere, indicate that women are fighting for far more comprehensive freedoms.

In Iran, protests over Mahsa Amini’s death are still continuing after four weeks, and are being met with brutal force by State authorities. Kurdish people are enraged, but demonstrations are also widespread all over Iran. We know that nearly 200 people have been killed, hundreds injured and thousands arrested. I want to point out that the protests may have been instigated by Amini’s death, and dress codes, but they now also address Iranian women’s secondclass status as citizens. Many are also expressing their general distaste for the oppressive governance by the clerics in Power. Young Iranian women, in particular, are showing immense courage, and putting their lives on the line, and doing it at great peril to their own safety. One young woman said: “We prefer death to humiliation.”

Mainstream Iranians are also stepping up now. People with clout: sports figures, teachers, Union leaders, and even some in the clerical community, are joining their voices to the protestors, and speaking out against the violence of the riot police and, even, on occasion, calling for the abolition of the Islamic Republic in power. Earlier this week, Oil Workers went on strike in support of the Protests. The prime slogan in Iran today is “Women, Life and Liberty”.

In India, women have been challenging the Hijab bans of students, with protests in the streets, and also in the Courts.

In Bangladesh, the State has backed the freedom of women and men to dress as they wish. In 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court passed a noteworthy ruling stating no one can be forced to wear religious clothes against their wishes. Although there is a gap between this law and the implementation of it, it helps that the State is on the side of the protestors. There’s much solidarity for Mahsa Amini in Bangladesh, focusing their protests on the gender violence against her. Rallies and vigils by The “1 Billion Rising” chapter in Dhaka conducted rallies and vigils in her name.

In the US, since the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, there have been protests and statements of outrage. Hundreds have turned up in the streets of major cities, including Boston, where I am. As one person said: “the hardest decision a woman will ever make, is not yours to make.”

Besides protests, creative responses are emerging for more access to reproductive care. I am proud to say, one of these is a brave effort by a doctor in my own family. She made the decision to spend the last five months setting up an independent clinic where women in need, mostly coming from States with abortion bans, would be able to get respectful reproductive health care in a safe setting. District Attorneys in liberal States are also putting in place laws to protect the rights of women, as well as keep Providers safe from harm. And most importantly, women, and young women in particular, are registering to vote by the hundreds, showing a lot could be decided at the ballot boxes.

Women are fighting for their rights. But, as you can see, the fight is about more than head coverings or abortions. Ultimately, the fight is about whether women are equal partners and decision makers, not just about our lives, but about our world. We cannot have a world that is peaceful and healthy if it is a world that is operating in a state of extreme imbalance, as our world is doing today. This imbalance is manifested by glaring inequalities in wealth among people, and between countries; by rampant exploitation of nature; by rising authoritarianism in our political systems; by the unquestioned power exercised by men over women.

And, finally, the most egregious sign of imbalance is, that decisions affecting all of us are being made by mere handfuls of people, mostly men. We are talking about decisions at every level, from ‘let’s build a new generation of nuclear weapons’, to  ‘let’s ensure every hair on a woman’s head is covered up’. This recipe of unbalanced extremism, without room for compromise, understanding, respect or kindness, has led humankind to the brink of extinction. To restore balance, we need true representation in decision-making: we need the wisdom of men, of women, of people of all colors, of the young, the old, and all ethnicities and creeds.

I fear, that if we do not discover a means for adding all our voices to the running of the world, then our environment, our oceans and forests, our fellow creatures who depend on us, our mates, our children, our world – are all in jeopardy. This is a fight we cannot afford to lose. May the death of a young girl in Iran, and all the other deaths of the young, motivate us. Insha Allah, we will prevail.

Hayat Imam is a member of MAPA’s board of directors