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The Visibility of the Hijab

Patriarchy often overtly demonstrates its power through the public control of women.

In Iran, since its patriarchal religious revolution in 1979, that has meant in part an enforcement of extreme dress codes. All women must wear the chador, a black, full-length body covering and the hijab, a scarf meant to cover women’s hair. In the past six weeks, there have been massive protests against this symbolic control of women sparked by the morality police-caused death of an accused dress code violator, Mahsa Amini. Protests have broken out in scores of cities, led by women and even schoolgirls. Some have taken off their hijabs and waved them defiantly, others have burned theirs. Women are attending protests with their hair uncovered in clear defiance of the dress code. Some are even cutting their hair in public. The enforcers of the Iranian patriarchy are attacking the protestors for their defiance. According to Norway-based Iran Human Rights, 234 people, including 29 children, have been killed by the Iranian riot police and paramilitary. But the protests show no sign of slowing. Indeed, 40 days after her death those who support the “Woman, Life and Freedom” movement clashed with the forces of the religious dictatorship at Amini’s grave.

Here in the United States, the enforcers of religious patriarchy have so far employed a more subtle approach. First, they stacked the Supreme Court with justices who oppose a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, and, therefore, a woman’s right to equal protection under the law. This summer, the Supreme Court overturned fifty years of settled law that protected a woman’s right to make their own decision about whether to bear children or not. With no national law in place, several states (like my childhood home state of Wisconsin) have reverted to laws written before modern medicine existed. Some of these antiquated laws prohibit abortion for any reason, including to save the life of the mother. Other states (like Texas) have passed new laws that in practice make abortions entirely unavailable, due to fear by medical professionals of breaking these ill-defined laws.

Iranian women know they are not free and are agitating to expand their rights. We Americans have taken bodily autonomy for granted for the past fifty years. Indeed, a woman’s right to control her own body has become a mainstream norm, even if often violated. Since all other rights for women are based on control over our own bodies, the overturn of Roe v. Wade has made women second-class citizens once again. We have lost our equality under the law in many states. So far, we’ve taken this diminishment of rights in silence. There have been only a few protests in a few places. Maybe it is hard to believe because, unlike the mandatory hijab, it is not experienced every day. Maybe, it is because we think we can reverse this regression through an equally silent method — the vote. Unless women and all supporters of women vote for candidates who are devoted to the right to bodily autonomy for women, we are likely to see a national ban on the right to choose. And why would those who seek to (re-)establish a white, male-dominated Christian nation in this country stop with reversing only that right?

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