(The Conversation) – The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after being detained by Iran’s vice police for breaking the country’s hijab rules has drawn global attention to Iran’s repression of women. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country theologically and politically opposed to Shia Iran, has similar restrictive rules when it comes to women.
The connection between faith and practice in the wider Muslim world is central to my research. A broader look at some of the Muslim-majority countries shows that even where they may claim to be ideologically diametrically opposed, they often have similar religious police or other rules to uphold the faith in everyday life. Moreover, it is my belief, they have nothing to do with Islamic principles.
In many Muslim-majority countries, imposing barriers on women has been a way of letting the world know what kind of politics and ideology the government believes in.
Market inspectors turned into morality police
The closest thing to today’s morality police found in early Islamic history is the “Muhtasib”, or watchers. The Muhtasib, who had to know Islamic law, were appointed by the ruler, like the sultan in the Ottoman era, to oversee commercial matters. The Muhtasib’s job was to ensure that traders used correct measures and weights, paid taxes, and maintained hygienic conditions in their establishments.
More generally, they would observe public actions and had jurisdiction to reprimand and sometimes punish people. They were not known to target women and they respected the beliefs of the multiple religions that existed at the time. In contemporary Iran, the rules on wearing a head covering are respected for all women, even if they are not Muslim.
The basic tenets of Islam are that humans share a direct relationship with God without the interference of individuals or organizations. The Koran does not state that women should not drive, as in Saudi Arabia, or that women should be forced to wear conservative clothing. While the Quran asks both men and women to dress modestly, it does not discriminate.
In today’s political environment, women’s bodies and modesty of dress are often the fastest way for governments to express whether the country is secular.
In the 1970s, for example, the Syrian government banned women from wearing the veil in public because President Hafez-al-Assad wanted the outside world to understand that the Baathist regime was secular and left-wing. The policy continued under President Bashar al-Assad, and in 2010 more than a thousand primary school teachers wearing headscarves were dismissed from their teaching duties and given administrative posts.
In Iran, however, after the 1979 revolution, as observers have pointed out, the hijab became the “central symbol” of Islamist domination. The compulsory wearing of the hijab was imposed by law in Iran, and any violation was punishable by fines and a two-month prison sentence.
Egypt provides another example. In 2011, the image of a woman whose face was veiled but whose top had torn revealing her blue bra as she was dragged away by Egyptian police captured media attention . The image, known as the “girl in the blue bra”, quickly became a symbol of the Egyptian military’s oppression of women.
The fact is, women face police brutality no matter how they dress. The “girl in the blue bra” was attacked by the police because she dared to protest against the country’s conditions. I believe that undressing her and kicking her in the abdomen were done on purpose to dissuade other women from joining the revolution. In 2011, many female protesters were subjected to virginity testing by Egyptian police while in captivity.
Contrary to a misconception that Muslim women are always forced to act conservatively in their respective countries, the truth is that women are raped because they are nonconforming citizens in their respective polities.
What is important to note is that these patriarchal practices are often not limited to controlling women’s modest dress and brutally penalizing them, but also to forcing them to remove their veils. Following the 2013 coup in Egypt, when the head of the Egyptian army, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, overthrew the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, widespread changes were introduced, including a repression against women who have chosen to wear the niqab.
Women’s rights and choices over their bodies must be respected – by Muslim-majority nations and the rest of the world.
(Deina Abdelkader is an associate professor of political science at UMass Lowell. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)