Masih Alinejad is an Iranian-American journalist, author, and women’s rights activist. She released a book in 2018 called The Wind in My Hair that deals with her experiences growing up in Iran, where she writes girls “are raised to keep their heads low, to be unobtrusive as possible, and to be meek.
In 2014, Alinejad launched My Stealthy Freedom, a Facebook page that invites Iranian women to post pictures of themselves without a hijab. The page quickly attracted international attention and has garnered hundreds of thousands of likes. Alinejad has said she is not opposed to the hijab per se but believes it should be a matter of personal choice. In Iran, women who appear in public without a hijab risk being arrested, imprisoned, and fined. She is currently in the news for documenting how brave Iranian women are removing the hijab and recording themselves, defying the mullah regime of Iran. This kept bringing to mind how the hijab was enforced in Kashmir Valley in the 90s decade and continues to cloak critical thinking among third-generation Kashmiri women believing “it is their choice.”
The narrative which came out from the Kashmir Valley in the last three decades since 1989, gave the impression that J&K State administered by India was predominantly Muslim and that they all wanted Azadi. This is because the rest of the world is still not familiar with the geography of the region and the “narrative” was in the hands of the Intifada factory (a motley group of activists, journalists, civil society members, bureaucracy, politicians, and since the late 90s media influencers).
J&K state used to comprise of Jammu Division, far larger than the area of the bowl of a Valley surrounded by mountains with two passes going in and three out, along with Ladakh. Since the 2019 Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act, Jammu, predominantly Hindu along with majority Muslim Kashmir is a Union Territory so is Ladakh chiefly Buddhist in nature. In Kashmir Valley, pockets of secession in some deadly districts manufactured a consent of Azadi which was amplified by biased TV, and media organizations with large help from the Pakistani ISI and media. In addition to this, the Intifada factory mentioned above expanded its base of operations to India and abroad, with collaborations with a network of Muslim Brotherhood, CAIR, and other Islamist organizations.
Kashmir’s pro-India citizens and the Indian government itself were slow in recognizing this psyop, and digital warfare and took a long time in pushing back against the Azadi narrative. Some of us took huge risks to stick our necks out and speak about what the silent majority of Kashmir was or has not been able to express due to the gun mafia or gun culture. The most visible form of repression was the imposition of “Nizam-e-Mustafa” entailing coercive hijab with acid attacks or knee-capping threats; closing down of cinema houses, beauty parlours, and wine shops; a terror pogrom against the indigenous Kashmiri Pandit population with selective assassinations, kidnappings, extortions and distress sales; hit lists by terror groups having names of high profile Pandits and secular -leftist Muslims; and a mushrooming of Wahhabi/Salafi/Jamaat mosques which spread a very narrow version of Islam to the mostly Sufi/Rishi dominated Valley.
In my city of Srinagar, the attitudes towards females covering up for modesty were always conservative but turned quite ugly in 1990 with the breakout of the Pakistan-backed Islamist insurgency in Kashmir against the Indian State. Before 1990, attitudes about female modesty were similar to those in the rest of the Hindu majority, multi-ethnic Indian subcontinent – a certain restriction of dress and behaviour on girls after puberty. I remember when I was told to stop wearing jeans and skirts, and to start wearing the ‘salwar-kameez’, traditional South Asian female clothing, with a ‘dupatta’ or ‘chunni’, a long-flowing piece of cloth that covers the upper torso and can be adjusted to cover the hair as needed, typically in the presence of elders or while praying. The instructions weren’t strict, and the attitude was lackadaisical with no enforcement of the dress code except when visiting a shrine or praying and handling the Quran. Contrary to the intent, this change of dress in fact brought unwelcomely and frequently harassing, male sexual attention as it represented a transformation from childhood to womanliness. Plus it was unfair for male relatives who suddenly felt uncomfortable approaching or addressing their sisters, playmates, and female members of the household whom they revered unconditionally. However, unpleasant though it was, it was nothing compared to what the rise of Islamist aggression in Kashmir was to bring.
The launch of the Islamist militancy brought with it the first diktats of the newly appeared militant guerrilla organisations, the ‘tanzeems’, which started issuing ‘farmans’, or official orders, that any Muslim girl or woman found wearing jeans or not having her head covered would have acid thrown on her or be shot at. Hindu girls and women were mandated to identify themselves as such with the ‘bindi’, a vermillion red dot worn cosmetically on the forehead.
I remember these ‘farman’ being laughed at, at first, but then reports started coming of women being shot in the legs and knees for wearing jeans. There was panic. Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers rushed to cloth shops for black fabric, and tailors were swamped with orders to stitch up clothing that met the approval of the armed Islamist enforcers. Old burqas and abayas (long cloaks inspired by the Arab culture), mostly those that our grandmothers had long discarded, were dug up and girls and women held try-out sessions for the burqa/niqab/hijab that fitted them. We laughed about how on earth our grandmothers had been able to get around with only a net for vision and breathing. But it turned serious when they said this was ‘taawan’, a curse in their characteristic chaste Kashmiri.
They said they had given it up as it had come to be considered backward and rural or archaic to not show their faces. My maternal grandmother talked particularly about using hers only when she went to the mosque to hear the khutba (Friday sermon) as that was a tradition. These matriarchs were the most vociferous of all the women about the explosion of ‘tanzeems’ (terror groups and their ‘farmans’ (diktats), cursing the ‘misguided youth’ on the “Islam they were bringing”.
My mother’s generation of the 90s however had a different problem altogether – rebellious daughters who refused to get behind the veil, come what may. Many mothers spent many sleepless nights worrying about what could happen if their feisty, opinionated, English-medium-educated daughters did not follow the Islamists’ diktats. Soon enough, the militants clashing with the Indian armed forces made the streets of the city unsafe. Curfews became routine. The population became virtually confined indoors, caught between crossfires, crackdowns, raids, identification parades, shootouts, guerilla warfare, and a full-blown Pak-sponsored insurgency. The veil became something to be put on if we went out so as not to attract the ire of the militants or some zealous lunatic.
The whole dressing sense of the city changed. Even conflicts can’t stop creativity and women became creative with designs, especially with the upper-class women who had settled in the Gulf influencing fashion back home. With the advent of technology, and satellite TV these wealthy elite women started setting up boutiques and beauty parlours surreptitiously in posh neighbourhoods of the city, hidden from public view.
Ever wary of being shot in the legs or having their knee caps shattered, they slowly changed the fashion sense of the city as more and more women turned to creatively designed hijabs, burqas, niqabs, and abayas. We watched with fascination, friends, and female relatives demonstrating the various techniques of putting on the hijab with coloured pins or safety clips; heard the increasing sense of humour as jokes were made about getting pricked in the wrong places.
But then came the rising association of piety with the practice of the veil. Horrifically, the slut-shaming began of those who chose not to ‘veil up’. I used to walk every day to a bus stop to commute to my day job, and one day a man from the neighbourhood threateningly shouted at me, demanding why I didn’t have my “poosch” (veil in Kashmiri). In a flash second, all the frustration of years of confinement indoors, the discontinuation of sports, the constant moral policing, and the justification by women of the ‘piety’ of the veil came rushing to my head, and I whirled and slapped him with maximum impact. The whole street – mechanics in the shops beneath a mosque, the passers-by stopped in stunned silence as I ran him off the street. Decades on, this man still cowers every time he sees me.
It was then that I started reading about Stockholm Syndrome, white guilt, Wahhabism, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamisation of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and now increasingly European countries too. I started to realize then that the women who were advocating the veil the most were the ones who found meaning in the approval of the Islamist frat boys. An approval they earned through subjugating themselves with the ‘penguin dress’; something that women in the Intifada factory do while parroting the Azadi rhetoric.
Muslims opposing the Hijab have to face arguments about personal choice from hijabi women, but it’s not about freedom of choice at all. It’s about conditioned women, seeking acceptance in a fiercely tribal society and wanting to preserve the roles, responsibilities, obligations, and limitations of women in Muslim society. That this results in pressure on all women to fall in line is not a problem for the hijabis/niqabis because they think it is perfectly right for women to know and occupy their proper place – a far-right Muslim conservative or orthodox view.
So the millions of women who are forced/ coerced/ threatened/ conditioned into the hijab, face not only the misogynistic, patriarchy that commands this diktat, but also the women who agree with those men, and dress it up as “freedom of choice”. One has to see objectively what the hijab, niqab, and burqa have come to signify. There are symbols of oppression on the unwilling Muslim women and the atrocities they face if they don’t keep their “proper” place. When the Taliban got projected into our living rooms in the 90s with their stadium executions and thrashings of women in blue burqas, there was no doubt as to what was going on. With the advent of Wahabbism/Salafism across the Muslim world through petro-dollars, the hijab is still being enforced on girls as young as three in the 21st century.
So I find it very hard to accept the efforts of women in free countries to use the symbol of oppression as a means of showing solidarity. I can only label it as either ignorance of the Liberals of the West, or outright appeasement by the regressive Left of the backward, oppressive, misogynistic attitudes of Muslim society. I am still unable to understand the desperate desire in the Western democratic Left to appease and coddle the most regressive aspects of the conservative Muslim right.
(Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based writer, blogger and social commentator.)(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)