Leashing us softly
Like many people, I had a memorable first day of school. Not because it was the first time going to a new place. Nor because my otherwise amazing parents forgot to tell me that I’d be starting school on that day. No, it was neither the fear nor the shock that made the day memorable, but the fact that I had to wear a headscarf!
Of course, growing up in Tehran, Iran, I knew that when girls reached a certain age, they had to cover their hair in public. For me, like most other Iranian girls, the age was six. That was the age I started first grade and was ‘required’ by school, under government and Islamic laws, to cover my hair.
I remember the day vividly. I was sitting at the breakfast table, eating my usual breakfast of buttered toast and honey, when my dad told me to hurry up and finish because I had to go to school. Before I had the chance to say anything, my mom came toward me with a neatly folded navy-colored scarf. She opened it and put it over my head. My puffy curly hair did not fit in it. She gently pushed my hair inside the scarf. The curls sprang out. In an effort to cover all my hair, she pulled the scarf down my forehead, almost all the way toward my eyebrows. Still, my hair was unruly and didn’t want to stay in. My hair didn’t like the scarf, I thought. It repelled it. I felt the same way, but I didn’t tell her.
My mom spent a good amount of time fixing my scarf and the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about a cartoon I had recently seen. I don’t remember the details, but it had something to do with a dog that got leashed by his owner, just before going out for a walk. The walk was lovely, but the dog was sad because he wasn’t free to move around. Anyhow, after my scarf was fixed, I was handed to my dad. He took me to the car and as I sat in the back seat, I saw my reflection in the front mirror. My halo of curls was replaced by a puffy dark veil. I looked ridiculous and sad at the same time. But I didn’t complain to my dad either. I just sat there, thinking of the cartoon.
After that uncomfortable first day of school, and throughout the next several elementary school years in Tehran, I got used to wearing a head scarf. It became a routine; the usual. Yet, whenever I saw my older brother go to school, scarf-free of course, I wondered how it would feel to leave the house without having to ‘hide’ your hair. I was sure that all that running, jumping and chasing in the school yard was even more fun without a scarf. Plus, he didn’t have to worry about getting punished if his scarf accidently slipped. How unfair, I would think to myself, that girls had to wear scarves.
But it wasn’t about the scarf. And it wasn’t about the hair. It was about being controlled and forced into doing something. It was about the leash, disguised as a head scarf. And the leash, as harmless as it may have looked, was nothing but a passive form of violence.
Of course, it’s one thing for women who grow up in certain cultures or have specific faiths, to choose how they want dress or live. My paternal grandmother loved wearing headscarves. For her, it was comforting. She wore a scarf like other women would wear makeup or jewelry. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done arbitrary, with genuine belief and pleasure.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case for secular women living in Iran. They’re forced into wearing headscarves in public and will be severely punished if they don’t. As such, they are subjects to a passive act of violence on daily basis.
Although the topic of covering hair in accordance with the Islamic laws is too complex to discuss here, one simple point should be made: no woman should be forced into doing something against her will, regardless of how important religion, tradition or society makes it. Obviously, forcing someone to do something for someone’s safety and health is quite different. But often times, the rules and traditions that burden women, whether it’s the requirement to cover their hair in public, not be able to get legal abortion or get equal pay for equal work, have nothing to do with their wellbeing and everything to do with limiting their power.
As Gandhi said, "Violence has two children, the physical and passive forms”. A requirement to wear a headscarf may not seem like a violent act- it certainly cannot compare to rape or physical abuse- but it still is a form of violence because it forces one to do something against her will and wish.
As women, we have to be especially vigilant of these “passive forms” of violence. They’re present in many countries. Not just Iran, not just Middle East or Third World countries….but many, many countries. They also come in many forms: sometimes tangible, like scarves, and sometimes intangible, like our rights. We may be exposed to them very young, or later in life. Yet, they have some things in common: they’re the ones that go on discreetly but consistently…….taking away our power and leashing us softly.