Lia Dekanadze: Hello Inshah, thank you for taking the time to converse with us about a pressing issue that has captivated the attention of so many people around the world. Can you please provide a brief summary of your academic background and work experience to familiarize our readers with your domains of expertise?
Inshah Malik: First of all, thank you so much for this opportunity to speak with you and to reach your readership. I am a political theorist and a gender studies scholar. I have a PhD from the Center for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. I was also a former Fox Fellow at Yale University, and served as a visiting professor at many other universities, including Northwestern and University of Washington. Very recently, I worked as an assistant professor in Afghanistan before its government collapsed in 2021.
My ethnographic work on the Kashmir region, located north of India, was published in the form of a monograph Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance Politics: The Case of Kashmir (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). My research interests include political theory, history of Islam, political movements, internet activism, and gender studies in the Caucuses, Central and South Asia, particularly Georgia, Iran, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. I have travelled and conducted extensive research in these countries, and of course, I am in Georgia as a visiting scholar at Ilia State University.
Lia Dekanadze: Can you elaborate on the phenomenon of the Hijab and its variations to help us understand its historical and cultural context? What is its religious, cultural, and political importance and what is its symbolic meaning?
Inshah Malik: The Hijab enacts a religious code of conduct that encourages modesty of thought and dress for both men and women. It is not a conception exclusive to Islam since we have seen it in all Semitic religions including Judaism and Christianity, especially in its Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries including Russia. Perhaps important to mention, as a code, its emergence was closely linked to the origins of an agricultural and civilizational development. In historical Islam (which started in 570 CE), the code of conduct was adopted, not necessarily as a religious law (Sharia), codified law or obligation, but more so as a guideline or guiding principle. It appears to be a manifestation of the idea of modesty, and reinforcement of such a law was practically non-existent at least in the early version of Islamic governance. However, in what I call “postcolonial Islam”, its potency as a political project was amplified precisely for two reasons. One, that colonial movements made it central to their propaganda campaigns, for their colonializing and imperial missions, with the liberation from the Hijab being seen as the advent of modernity in some sense. The second reason perhaps is its centrality in revivalism of Islam as an ideologically modern movement. The rethinking of Islamic law, especially the one related to the Hijab, underwent a massive reconsideration. With revivalism came the reassertion of the Quran (the holy book of Islam) and its centrality as a source of law. We saw the re-emergence of the veil after certain movements of secularized modernity were rejected in many countries, including Iran (with the monarchy of Shah), Turkey and Egypt for their lack of respect for religious rights of Muslims, etc.
Therefore, the broader idea of modesty in appearance, behavior and thought of the Muslim believer (regardless of their gender) sought a practice to lower their gaze and guard their modesty for a particular spiritual life that turned into a contest about women’s “veils”, between various competing patriarchal forces in each Muslim country. What is also interesting to note here is that the debates around the Hijab are based on generalizations about various and complexly different Muslim countries, as the historical interaction, reappearance of veil and its political potencies were exploited for starkly different reasons at different moments of respective national histories.
Perhaps, more pertinent is the recent rethinking about the Hijab within global feminist movements. Conceptualizations that could successfully speak on the political condition of Muslim women without either siding with outright imperialistic views or with the revivalist essentialism of certain practices, largely such movements have met with resistance as they are easily visualized as foreign. As a result, Islamic feminism, Muslim feminists and scholars have remained at the margins of the mainstream “Muslim” world. So in the modernist sense, any discussion about “hijab” is reduced to a rather redundant debate about choice. However, in my understanding, a major point of concern is how modern religious or secular law is enforced and how more technology for policing is increasingly removing personal agency and freedom, more so and especially for women. It is also important to add, Muslim women’s agency in engaging with these ideas are also important to develop a perspective on how lived experience has allowed women to make small changes on their own accord.
Lia Dekanadze: With what is transpiring in Iran at the moment, do you think that we are witnessing an anti-Hijab/anti-Islamic campaign? Is this the struggle against the totalitarian control and violence of the state or is it something else altogether?
Inshah Malik: The recent uprising is a tipping point and involves a much streamlined and directed anger towards morality police (Gasht e Irshad) in Iran after a young girl named Mahsa Amini died in police custody. From my travels in Iran and first-hand understanding of the country, it has a very long history and a complicated relationship with its identity, especially after its transition into an Islamic state crafted around the idea of Vilayat e Faqih (Rule of Clergy). The modern doctrine was created by Ayatollah Khomeni, the founder of the Islamic republic after a successful 1979 revolution in the country. The post-revolution system has allowed for a transfer of all the public power from ordinary civilians to the clergy. Within a larger historical frame, it is a very recent and modern system created, but not completely developed, for addressing essential governance issues of a very modern country. Because of its position to stand outside of the east and west oriented politics, it’s worthy to mention that since its inception the country has remained under strict US economic sanctions.
Iranian society is a complex organization and based on one’s vantage point, class, caste and regional affiliation, one has a very diverse view on how politics should be administered in the country. The movement is clearly against enforced Hijab, and there is also a widening divide among the people, especially among those who want reform, abolition of the morality police or abolition of gender apartheid or a complete regime change. However, there is a stark distinction between the views of the diaspora and the people from within Iran. The spontaneous movement sparked by the death of a young woman is actually leaderless. However, diaspora Iranians such as Masih Alinejad—who was profiled in New Yorker recently and has been leading anti-regime movement remotely from United States—has an enormous following in Iran but also more as a source of news and less as an actual leader.
The view from within Iran is that the younger generation has grown up differently and do not appreciate the enforcing of the Hijab through moral policing. Many religious Iranians see that the political system violates even basic tenets of Islam and fundamentally is against their faith. So on the streets of Tehran, we see complete coexistence of women in their Hijabs and women burning their Hijabs, but both remain together against what they call “Hijab e ijbari” (forced veiling). It is worthy to note that the more repressive the Iranian state turned towards the protestors, more deaths and killing escalated fueling anger and disappointment among younger protestors, where now most online posts indicate or highlight “a need for regime change”. In conclusion, I definitely think the movement is a lot more directed at the state’s totalitarian powers, than religion per se.
Lia Dekanadze: Iranian culture shows great loves towards symbols and metaphors not only in poetry and literature but also in politics. What do you think symbolic actions such as the removal of the Hijab as protest, its collective burning in bonfires, and the shaving and cutting off of hair mean to modern Iranian women? Are these defiant acts sending signals to the government/religious institutions in Iran of the change that may come from within Iranian civil society?
Inshah Malik: In Iranian society, poetry and symbolism has always played an important role as you rightly point out. Perhaps setting fire to the Hijab is a cultural symbol of “devaluing” something because it has acquired more importance than human life. Similarly, hair is culturally seen as a quintessential symbol of aesthetic beauty in women that should be protected or covered and cutting it off is signaling that women do not value such symbols of beauty more than the lives of their sisters, and it’s indeed a very powerful way to show solidarity, and a symbolic act at that.
Lia Dekanadze: “Jin, jiyan, azadi!” or “Woman, life, freedom!” is the main slogan of the uprising, through which the aspirations and ideals of the “rebels” are presented. What are the expectations and prospects for achieving these ideals in Iran? Will the future of Iran be feminine (female)? And what is the symbolic and political significance of the fact that women are leading this uprising?
Inshah Malik: Women have always been central to politics in Iran, especially in its revolutionary ideals. In the 1979 Iranian Revolution, women fought to gain the right to work and the right to education for women in hijab or simply to have the right to wear one, as a lot of ethnographic work and research on the Shah’s Iran shows. So it should be no surprise to see Iranian women again on the streets with that particular slogan taken of course from Kurdish groups. I think this particular moment works as a final signal for the Iranian government that it cannot ignore women’s demands anymore because they have the capacity to shake its foundations. In terms of how these movements can create concrete outcomes for women’s rights remains to be seen, because as always there is a possibility of over-politicization of women’s demands and galvanizing them for other political outcomes; this is unfortunately what we have seen in many protest movements in the region.
One of the possible outcomes would be if the current leadership can prepare for a peaceful transition of the country into a more democratic system of political governance since the current supreme leader is old and cannot afford to leave a legacy of a civil war in Iran and to prevent foreign interventions. However, we will need to wait and see how it all pans out.
Lia Dekanadze: How would you assess the ethnic and denominational element of the events that have taken place in Iran? Did the tragic murder/death of Mahsa Amini have an ethnic-confessional context? What does the short remark made by the family on her grave (“Dear Jina you won’t die. Your name will become a symbol.”) tell us about the current situation and the future of Iranian society?
Inshah Malik: Mahsa Amini’s tragic death, which is central to the anti-Hijab protests in Tehran, is politics folded in many invisible and invisibilising layers. Mahsa Amini is a Kurdish woman, most often than not, the death or killing of Kurds incites no such mass protests in mainland Iran. It is only when it converges on the idea of “the Hijab” that Mahsa Amini becomes central to Iran’s revolutionary politics. Even the Kurdish slogans for freedom are freely borrowed in this case. In other words, when the issue affects more modern upward-mobile or urban women’s sense of freedom, then even ethnically divergent and culturally peripheral women become central to the politics. This politics is not unlike any other marginalized people’s or communities’, whose lives are only useful if they can become tools to appeal to the majoritarian sense of freedom in the mainland. However, from the family’s point of view, the unjust death was projected with great force into the politics that with the potential of awakening people beyond their own identity and cultural specificity, and it rightly did, uniting so many people under a common struggle.
Lia Dekanadze: What are your expectations and what impact can the ongoing protests in Iran have on neighboring regions or on other Muslim societies when one thinks of anti-government and feminist movements?
Inshah Malik: I think in general this political uprising has a lot of good lessons for everyone far beyond any religious context, especially for countries that have moved drastically towards a totalitarian direction. For example, in India, where Hijab-wearing women are denied entry into educational institutions or in cases where identitarian politics is forcing people to give up more and more of their personal and collective freedoms.
Lia Dekanadze: How do you assess the feminist discourses in Muslim-majority countries? Are those movements growing out of local cultural context, or are they imitations or adaptations of dominant western feminist discourses?
Inshah Malik: In the contest of interconnectedness that we have come to inhabit, the biggest moot point is that Muslim societies are not operating in a vacuum; they are also societies that have modernized through various processes. They have remained open to influence and through centuries have absorbed new ideologies, technologies; transformations are slow especially in cases when certain issues are politicized beyond measure. In addition to this, we must remember, Muslim societies, cultures, countries are not monolithic, the diversity is enormous and visible especially to those who are able to understand and see it up close. Feminist discourses in Muslim-dominated societies have remained peripheral; however, we have seen how the subjective experiences of women in those countries and cultures have informed local movements like the ones we see in Iran. In addition to that, there are prominent feminist scholars who have interpreted even religious texts from a feminist lens and who have also produced extensive ethnographic work to further guide us.
Lia Dekanadze: What is the direction and discourses of feminist movements in Iran after the Islamic Revolution? Are such discourses and movements generally characterized as anti-Islamic generally?
Inshah Malik: I think we must not make this mistake to label the feminist movement in Iran as anti-Islamic; this is also a rhetoric that the Iranian state adopts against the protestors. It is a movement against anti-totalitarianism, anti-enforcement of the Hijab, anti-abusive religious power of the clergy, but not anti-Islamic necessarily.
Lia Dekanadze: Is there a solid ground for the unification of women with and without Hijab not only in Iran, but also in other societies, and what can be the common point of such unity?
Inshah Malik: I think the deepest take away from observing Iranian women’s politics is to understand that these discussions about the Hijab have served mostly as a distraction from bigger and more important discussions about women’s political, social, and cultural rights. A true liberationist politics must address our tendencies to see Islam as a religion that is somehow exclusively or especially patriarchal. The important common point for women anywhere now is the general increase in patriarchal regional warmongering; there is a need for stronger connection, solidarity to resist absolutist state authority and blatant warmongering happening almost everywhere now—and we are no strangers to that in this region with Putin’s assault on Ukraine.
Lia Dekanadze: Do you perceive the civil and religious activism of Muslim women with Hijab to be part of the feminist discourse?
Inshah Malik: Absolutely.
Lia Dekanadze: Lastly, how does the intersection between freedom of religion and faith and gender equality shape the identity of Muslim women in Muslim-majority communities?
Inshah Malik: It is a very complex question and deeply linked to the context of the communities in question. I think in general indicators of gender equality are very different in every Muslim country depending on levels of development, general literacy and experiences of modernity. But overall, I think it is important to understand that in countries where a stronger gender segregation exists, it is more likely that alternative matriarchal cultures also tend to exist and persist, even in the most extremely rigid societies. This is where feminists turn to the notion of agency. Having said that, Muslim women from any community we look at are showing us the way to not only resolve situations involving the lack of rights but even helping develop political resolutions to long-standing state and conflict-driven problems they have inherited.
About the Author/Interviewer
Lia Dekanadze has worked as an intern at the field office of the Social Justice Center in Khulo from September 2020 to January 2021. She graduated from the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences of Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. Lia is the co-founder of the regional non-governmental organization Solidarity Community.