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Editorial: Iran, India, hijabs and the fight for women

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Whatever one may think of the issue of abortion, few would argue that federal and state governments are asserting more control over women’s bodies in the United States, a development that might seem foreign to an older generation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R–South Carolina, wants a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks, a move that will not be enough for those who want a permanent ban on abortion with no exceptions. And the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled that it wants to reconsider the right to contraception.

Here in Virginia, it remains to be seen how the General Assembly will move, but there is mounting pressure to at least restrict abortion after 15 weeks in the commonwealth. The contraception debate has yet to gain traction here.

As these battles play out in our local legislature, and on Nov. 8 at the polls, we should all give due consideration to what is happening in Iran.

For more than 40 days now, women and men have been engaged in ongoing protests against an oppressive regime that is especially aggressive in its desire to control women.

The uprisings began following the arrest on Sept. 16, and subsequent death on Sept. 19, of Mahsa Amini. Her crime? Supposedly wearing her hijab — the head covering worn by many Muslim women — improperly. For that offense, she was taken off the street by Iran’s “morality police,” and then most likely beaten in the head.

The ensuing uprising was spontaneous and has been growing, with people rallying around the slogan, “Women, Life, Freedom.”

A seminar delivered Wednesday at the University of Mary Washington discussed the uprising and where it may ultimately grow.

Leila Asadi, an activist associated with the National Democratic Institute, finds this moment in Iran particularly important because unlike previous uprisings, it is attracting women and men from across all socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s also playing out in rural and urban communities.

Protestors are removing their hijabs, cutting their hair, and facing terrifying force as a result. Though total numbers are hard to come by, estimates say at least 200 people have been killed, with well over a thousand more put in prison. The terror is likely to get worse, with news from Voice of America that Russia may now be advising Iran on how to handle the uprising.

Mehdi Aminrazavi, a professor of religion at UMW who also spoke on Wednesday, understands the passion on the street. He was involved in the uprisings in the mid-1970s against the shah. That movement to bring freedom to Iran was taken over, however, by religious fundamentalists who created the current theocratic state, and led to a mass exodus of Iranians that is ongoing. Today, some estimates place the number of Iranians living in the U.S. at 1.5 million, with about 10% of them living in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

“Fascism is bad,” he told those in attendance, “but religious fascism is the worst of the worst.”

Why should we in Virginia care?

First, because we value freedom above all else, and have long stood as a beacon of that ideal. It’s no accident that the greatest proportion of those people after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 who fled the country in what we now call the Iranian Diaspora, came here.

Second, we should recognize that the struggle of women for freedom in Iran is part of the ongoing push for women’s rights here and around the world. And very often, religion plays a central role in that struggle.

A questioner at Wednesday’s event, for example, noted that Muslim women in India are also protesting, but not to remove their hijabs. Rather, they’re fighting for the right to wear it. As a minority population, Muslim women in India see the hijab as an important part of their identity, which the ruling Indian powers wish to suppress.

In both cases, women are fighting for the same thing: The right to be free of patriarchal interpretations of how they should live their lives, and the right to define themselves how they choose, whether that be through wearing the hijab, or taking it off.

The separation of church and state, and the protection of minority religious voices, are central to America’s founding documents. And Virginia played a leading role in both.

As we wrestle with our own issues around women and freedom in America, let us think carefully about what women elsewhere are fighting for, and remind ourselves of the principles that made America the place oppressed people look to, and come to, when their own countries turn against them.

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