The Swedish government has come under widespread criticism from human rights groups after Swedish female officials wore the hijab on their trip to Iran. While the government has argued that this was done to respect Iranian culture and tradition, human rights groups have criticised the move as evidence of complacency of progressive governments in the face of repressive, anti-women practices in theocracies like Iran.
What the Swedish delegation did
Last weekend, the Swedish Prime Minister led a Swedish delegation to Iran. The visit was bilateral in nature and thus included several female Swedish ministers (half of Sweden’s Cabinet is female, and its Parliament is one of the most gender-equal in the world).
The delegation made news not so much for the talks between Sweden and Iran, as it did to the choice of apparel of the female Swedish ministers. 11 of the 15 members of the delegation were women and they were photographed wearing headscarves “almost all of the time”.
Defending her government’s stance, Sweden’s Trade Minister Ann Linde (who was a part of the delegation) said, “It is law in Iran that women must wear the veil. One can hardly come here and break the laws.”
Critics pointed to the hypocrisy of a government which boasts of a “feminist foreign policy”. Women’s rights activists have shunned the move. “By actually complying with the directives of the Islamic Republic, Western women legitimise the compulsory hijab law,” Masih Alinejad, an Iran-born journalist who now lives in exile in the United Kingdom, wrote on Facebook.
Women’s rights in Iran
Individual liberty and women’s rights in Iran have for decades been an issue condemned by human rights groups. Activist Masih Alinejad compares journalism in Iran to ‘putting your hand in the mouth of a lion’.
The crackdown gradually intensified in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution (when Iran transitioned into a theocratic state).
Women’s rights activists in Iran are treated as ‘enemies of the state’ while Iranian women are made to face many demeaning, medieval restrictions – from being forced to wear a certain form of clothing to not being allowed to travel abroad without a man’s permission to being banned from stadiums. While the political and societal representation of women in Iran bears statistics which would make the 1st century proud, gender equality remains to be viewed as “unacceptable to the Islamic Republic“.
The compulsory hijab in Iran
One of Iran’s most controversial anti-women legislations has been the one on compulsory hijab. Not hijab, but compulsory hijab. (Nobody denies that Muslim women have the right to don the hijab, to wear what they want, when they want it. That is freedom.)
The problem is when you make a form of clothing – any form of clothing – compulsory. This is particularly true for the Islamic Republic of Iran, where thousands of women have been apprehended and punished for not following the compulsion or for speaking or writing even slightly in opposition to it.
History of compulsory hijab in Iran
A few months after the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini made the hijab mandatory for all women. Only a day later, 100,000 Iranian women took to the streets to protest this move.
For them, it was a matter of equality and human dignity. As we now know, they failed. The women’s marches were the last time that women appeared in public without the hijab. In the coming months, the theocratic revolutionary government proceeded to curb women’s rights. The “fashion police” grew in power, punishing women who dared to oppose the mandatory hijab law; government propaganda and abject lack of journalistic freedom meant that a whole generation of Iranian children – men and women – were brought up with the view that the compulsory hijab was Iranian, Islamic, and rational. It was mass childhood indoctrination.
Compulsory Hijab as a symbol of the Iranian government’s suppression of women’s rights
As the women’s rights activist Leila Mouri rightly wrote, “Since 1979, the Iranian government has made hijab an emblem of its religious and political identity. Iranian women covered by black chadors became the visual symbol of not only the Islamic government but also as a representation of the ideal type of Iranian women.”
In a recent speech to the European Parliament, Masih Alinejad beseeched European politicians to speak up against Iran’s repressive rules. “I ask … all of you female politicians around the world to stand for your dignity. Because if our (the Iranian) government comes to visit Europe, and you ask the female politician, “Remove your hijab,” they will protest. They are not going to say that, ‘This is the law, we have to respect the law,” or, “This is the culture and we have to respect the culture.’ … European female politicians … stand up with the French Muslim women, and condemn the burkini ban—because they think compulsion is bad—but when it happens to Iran, they just care about money. And they go to my country, and they ignore millions of those women who send their photos to me and put themselves in danger to be heard. And [the European politicians] keep their smile, and wearing hijab, and saying this is a ‘cultural issue’—which is wrong. This is the most visible symbol of oppression, and we have to stand all together and bring this wall down.”
Sweden’s reputation as a progressive, feminist state
“Sweden has the first feminist government in the world. This means that gender equality is central to the Government’s priorities – in decision-making and resource allocation. A feminist government ensures that a gender equality perspective is brought into policy-making on a broad front, both nationally and internationally. Women and men must have the same power to shape society and their lives.”
“Equality between women and men is a fundamental aim of Swedish foreign policy. Ensuring that women and girls can enjoy their fundamental human rights is both an obligation within the framework of our international commitments, and a prerequisite for reaching Sweden’s broader foreign policy goals of peace, and security and sustainable development.”
Soon after taking office, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order cutting off US funding for NGOs which promote or even advice on abortion-related services. This was criticised globally and is slated to affect millions of women around the world, particularly in poor and developing countries where women depend on US-funded NGOs for basic healthcare.
When signing the executive order, Donald Trump was surrounded by male officials of his administration. The cruel, striking irony of men determining women’s issues was deliberated on extensively.
In a subtle opposition to Trump’s order, the Swedish Deputy Minister (Isabella Lövin) paralleled Trump’s photograph by signing an order on climate action surrounded by only female members of her government. The tweet went viral.
Later, in an opinionated-editorial in The Guardian, Isabella Lövin – the same minister who so admirably trolled Trump – wrote the following inspiring words:
“It should be self-evident that women have the right to make decisions about their bodies. Yet throughout history, those in power – usually men – have tried to control women’s bodies. Sweden has a feminist government. For us, the answer is obvious. Sweden’s development is based on the equal rights of men and women … The world needs strong leadership for women’s rights. Sweden will have an increasingly important role to play in this, and we will ensure that Swedish aid goes where it does the most good. Many countries could learn an important lesson from this.”
Hillel Neuer commented: “If Sweden really cares about human rights, they should not be empowering a regime that brutalises its own citizens while carrying out genocide in Syria; and if they care about women’s rights, then the female ministers never should have gone to misogynistic Iran in the first place.”
UN Watch, the Geneva-based non-governmental human rights group, wrote the following in response to Trade Minister Ann Linde’s defence of her donning the hijab:
Dear Minister Linde,
UN Watch regrets that you did not protest Iran’s compulsory Hijab law, which is the most visible symbol of women’s oppression.
As one of three ministers responsible for Sweden’s declared “feminist foreign policy,” we expected more from you.
We also regret that you “see no conflict” between your government’s human rights policy and signing trade deals with a violent dictatorship that tortures prisoners, persecutes gays, and is a leading executioner of minors, not to mention complicit with genocide in Syria.
You have let down hundreds of thousands of women in Iran, as expressed by women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad.
The damage is done, but it’s not too late to speak out.
Compulsory hijab is a disgrace, and Sweden’s actions reeked of hypocrisy
Firstly, nobody denies the fact that Muslim women have the right to wear the hijab. What we are saying is that Muslim women must also have the right to not wear the hijab. Making any attire compulsory is inherently fascist and dictatorial, especially when you see it through the lens of Iran’s ultra-theocratic, ultra-conservative, ultra-illiberal, and ultra-repressive government.
Secondly, symbolism is important. For Iran’s government, making the hijab compulsory is a powerful way to control women’s bodies and opinions. For Iran’s government, making the hijab compulsory is a tool to ensure that half the country’s population conforms to one set of beliefs or one interpretation of cultural values. As mentioned previously, compulsory hijab is a symbol of the Iranian government’s suppression of women’s rights.
Thirdly, it is important to actively oppose bigotry and misogyny where and when we see them. The Swedish government is right in its belief that “A feminist government ensures that a gender equality perspective is brought into policy-making on a broad front, both nationally and internationally.” A progressive, modern, liberal government like Sweden’s, which puts a high emphasis on gender equality and women’s rights, is at a unique and strong position to champion the same values on an international platform. Instead of conforming to regressive laws, Sweden has a responsibility to oppose and highlight them.
Fourthly, defending Iran is the lowest opinion an individual can take. Iran has curbed, mocked, suppressed, quelled, and insulted women for decades. There is a very clear difference between criticising Iran and criticising Islam. This is the difference between politics and religion. Additionally, there is a very clear difference between criticising Iran and being prejudiced against Muslims. This is the difference between civilisation and bigotry. There is nothing anti-Muslim or “Islamophobic” about opposing Iran’s regressive laws. Respect for democracy and human rights demands that we take a stand against Iran’s suppression of women, minorities, and free speech.
Fifthly, solidarity is important. Sweden’s politicians are right when they write, “The world needs strong leadership for women’s rights.” However, the Swedish delegation has made it seem as if Iran’s laws on women are normal or acceptable. No, normalising oppression and bigotry are not what we need right now. Countless Iranian women have been arrested, detained, punished, and exiled over the years because they refused to accept the compulsory the hijab law because they dared to speak out against the rampant patriarchy of the Iranian government because they dared to have an opinion of their own.
Don’t these women who are being oppressed deserve any allies from other countries? Why should they fight alone? Shouldn’t we make our voices heard so that even their voices can, someday in the future, also be heard?