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In Iran, women are protesting the hijab. In India, they're suing to wear it

Student organizations demonstrate in Kolkata on Oct. 20, protesting in response to the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in Iran.
Various student organization took out a demonstration in Kolkata , India , on 20 October 2022 , to protest against death of Mahsa Amini by moral policing in Iran , and to support the woman's right movement that followed after the death 22 year old lady after she was arrested by police for reason for not wearing hijab properly according to report. (Photo by Debarchan Chatterjee/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

MUMBAI, India — Footage of Iranian women protesting and burning their hijabs has fascinated Indians, in part because they are seeing the opposite scenario play out at home: Muslim women are suing India's government for the right to keep their hijabs on.

Their lawsuit, brought by high schoolers banned from wearing headscarves in classrooms in southern India, has landed at the country's Supreme Court, where this month, judges admitted that even they have been unable to agree on the issue.

It's a reflection of just how sensitive anything related to the hijab is in Hindu-majority India, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Lawmakers from his Hindu nationalist party have been accused of inciting violence against India's 200 million Muslims — the country's largest minority.

But Modi's Hindu conservatives are championing female Muslim protesters in Iran.

Accused of anti-Muslim discrimination at home, Hindu nationalists voice support for Iranian women

The Iran protests fit a narrative popular among many in India's Hindu majority: that the hijab is an example of "radical Islam," a tool to control women and a slippery slope toward clerical control.

"Ever since 9/11, the first thing you see with the arrival of radical Islam is the attire," columnist Tavleen Singh said on a recent TV news program. "Every time men decide what women should wear, it is wrong. The hijab... is meant to be a political weapon."

Singh is from a Sikh family. She was an early Modi supporter who later wrote a book about how she became disenchanted with him.

But her views about women's dress resonate with Modi's supporters, who fear Islamist influence in India and point out that Indian authorities are not alone in their efforts to restrict the hijab. Islamic face coverings, though not headscarves, are banned in France too.

"Any attempt to veil women in the name of religion, even if it begins with a headscarf, should be seen as a sign of religious fundamentalism and a future where extensive veiling will be mandated under law," says Swati Goel Sharma, author of a new book titled The Hijab Debate: Subjugation Sold as Freedom.

That's why she opposes it in Indian public school classrooms. "It's like turning the wheels back," she says.

Sharma and her coauthor Sanjeev Newar filed a petition against the Muslim schoolgirls' lawsuit in the high court of Karnataka, a southern Indian state.

Many Hindu nationalists see a contradiction in those who support Iranian women taking off their hijabs while also supporting Indian women who want to keep them on.

"Oppose Hijab in Iran. Support Hijab in India. Hypocrisy of the Liberal Gangsters !" C. T. Ravi, the national general secretary of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted last month.

Muslim women say it's about choice

But many women on the left and right in India say that misses the point. It's not about the hijab, they say. It's about choice.

"In Iran, the state is interfering in the rights of women — the choice of women — to decide what to wear and what not to wear. And that is exactly the problem faced by the Muslim girls in the schools of Karnataka," says Samar Ali, general secretary of the student union at English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, in southern India.

Ali, who wears the hijab, alleges hypocrisy in another direction. If you champion Iranian women's choice, she says, you must do the same for the Karnataka girls. Those who don't have "double standards," she says.

"It is evident how biased these people are. Even the media in India, it portrays the protests in Iran as simply anti-hijab," Ali says. "But more than that, it's about the basic right of women to choose."

Both sides decry media coverage of the issue. Those on the right say Western coverage has unfairly celebrated the high school girls in Karnataka. And they accuse Indian Muslim groups of being comparatively silent on the Iran protests.

But everyone seems to agree on one thing: When Bollywood celebrities weigh in, they get way too much coverage.

A top Bollywood actress comments on Iran — and gets pummeled online

On Oct. 7, Indian film star Priyanka Chopra condemned the death in Iranian custody of Mahsa Amini, who'd been arrested by the country's so-called morality police for not wearing the hijab properly. Chopra said she was "in awe" of the Iranian protests that followed.

"The voices that speak after ages of forced silence, will rightfully burst like a volcano! And they will not and MUST not be stemmed," the actor wrote on Instagram.

She was swiftly vilified for it, and was deluged with accusations of hypocrisy.

Nabiya Khan, an Indian Muslim poet who wears the hijab, says Chopra has been conspicuously silent about the persecution of minorities at home.

"We never heard her raising concern against mob lynchings, illegal bulldozing of homes of Muslims, and an alarming increase of hate crimes against Muslims and Dalits in India," she says.

It's not the first time Chopra, a United Nations goodwill ambassador, has faced allegations of hypocrisy.

Two years ago, after she expressed support for Black Lives Matter, observers pointed out that in 2008, she appeared in a series of promotional videos for skin-lightening creams in India called White Beauty. She later said she regretted those ads.

The hijab is used as a political tool against governments

The way Indians view the anti-hijab movement in Iran largely depends on religion and ideology.

"The right wing, they would like to vilify Islam. So it's like 'See, we told you this is oppressive,'" says Debangana Chatterjee, a political scientist at Jain University in Bengaluru. "Then there are liberals on the left wing who say women's choice should be prioritized."

What they're all missing, Chatterjee says, is some history: In both Iran and India, the hijab has been used as a tool of political activism against the government.

Before Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Muslim veils were "a symbol of resistance against the oppressive Shah regime," Chatterjee wrote in a recent essay for the Indian online publication Scroll.in. They were also used by Algerian nationalists against the French, and in 1970s Egypt, she notes. Now they are being used by Karnataka schoolgirls to assert their own agency, Chatterjee says.

"Someone who wears a burqa isn't necessarily backward. The idea of repression doesn't reside in what someone is wearing, but whether they're wearing it by choice or not," she says. "That's what connects India and Iran."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.