A few years ago journalistic curiosity took me to the more conservative area in Tunis, Tunisia. It was fairly deserted as it was the afternoon but I came across two women walking down the street, they smiled, I smiled back and soon we were in conversation. What had struck me was that the older woman, the mother as I subsequently found out, was in ordinary clothing without any kind of cover - no hijab, no burka, no shawl. While the younger one, dressed nattily, was wearing a hijab.

So obviously I had to find out why? If the mother was not insistent and clearly nor was the father as she was roaming around quite freely, why did the daughter feel the need to wear the head clothing? In broken English we conversed enough for the mother to tell me that she had never felt the need, and her family had not made this demand on her. Besides, it was safe for the women in her time. The daughter said the choice was hers, no one had pushed her, but that she felt safer on the streets with the hijab on.

Many years before I had been witness to a heated conversation between two women in Egypt – I think it was at the then Ambassador's residence—both articulate and forceful. And one with the hijab and the other without. The second one said she would never compromise with the patriarchal demand and pressures on women from the streets. The first said she would rather cover her head and avoid any nastiness on the roads. Both said that their families were not making any such demand, and this came from their work environment and the deteriorating situation for women in Cairo.

So seemingly free choices were made. But not really. Free choices certainly by the mother in Tunisia who was now middle aged, and beyond pressure from the street. And by the woman in Egypt who was resisting the pressure that working women had started feeling from the street. But certainly not by the other two women as they had put on the hijab to basically keep themselves safe from taunts and teasing by groups of men, and to earn respect in societies where respect for women was linked to their clothing.

As in India where many of us who had joined journalism when it was still a man's world found ourselves discarding jeans for the salwar-kurta when we started covering politics. With jeans and a shirt one had to push back ministers like a particularly offensive one who had to be told to shut up and sit quietly lest he be taken through the coals. Salwar-kurta elicited a quieter response, and somehow seemed 'safer.' Again to protect ourselves from the men not just on the streets —somehow Delhi's streets were not tamed by clothing — but those inside offices and the legislature.

But the dam does not burst when all this is sort of voluntary, or at least we can believe that it is, discarding the influence of patriarchy on all womankind. It bursts when it is Iran, and should burst when it is Saudi Arabia where burqa and hijab has been made mandatory by law. On a visit to Iran we chickens covered our heads tightly as we had heard about the moral police. A colleague was a little careless with her lovely hair flowing out from under a casual dupatta, and she was set upon by a contingent of women who were sort of polite but made her sit and tied the scarf around her head, so that not a strand of hair was visible. Never again, she swore, but the women cops were polite so we sort of got away.

Not the young woman Mahsa Amin who died after these sinister groups patrolling the streets, set upon her. Her death has sparked off huge protests against the diktat with women burning the hijab in bonfires across Tehran. We had met any number of smart women in hijabs and burqas and I was particularly surprised how articulate they became the minute they shed the garb in private homes. Beautifully dressed in hi-fashion western clothes, with full make up these women shed more than just a burqa or hijab with most of them working in high profile jobs. All were against the government's decision to impose the additional garments on them, but seemed to be resigned to it.

Until now when clearly they have had enough. And the young woman's death has sparked off bottled anger and resentments after decades almost. At the time I visited the moral police was a little more relaxed and the atmosphere of fear, as one young woman confided, was far reduced. But over the years insecure governments that play the patriarchal card to get male and misguided female approval, had made life more than miserable for the women folk in the country. The moral police, one hears, had moved from the nudge to the shove with women feeling the repression.

So when women insist that their decision to wear the hijab is voluntary I must be forgiven for being the eternal skeptic. It is not mandatory in Islam, as many many independent experts have told me through the years. The only reference is to modest clothing that can change with time. After all, while women are expected to borrow from the scriptures, the men across the world have shed Arab robes for the more comfortable western gear of shirts and trousers! And dropped financial obligations prescribed by the religion — in fact in far firmer language than the dress code—for the financial laws of the lands they live in. In fact in India only the laws pertaining to the person are made a mountain of, where women remain in the dock on clothes, divorce and marriage.

But it does not help when the state comes down to harass women in the name of a dress code. When young girls are denied access to their educational institutions just because they wear the hijab, and were given admission despite it. Where they wear the school uniform with just the additional head clothing that like the turban can be easily made part of the uniform, and hence merged into the system instead of being used as a confrontationist weapon. It all boils down to respect. And dignity,

And perceived freedoms. Because pressure is seen as repression and this makes dialogue impossible. Women groups have been working since times immemorial with marginalised groups across the country, of whom poor and destitute Muslim women are an important component as well, to find that one, many of them when encouraged come out in support of changes in the marriage and divorce laws to get more equality; and two, are for education and equality. Over the years the fight for education is being won by the minority women, but to ensure this right they have donned the hijab to ensure that immediate society and the street both look at them with respect. Safety and security has always been an issue central to homes.

Since there were no state laws, the donning of hijab became voluntary, and women actually turned it into a fashion statement of sorts. A step above the burqa and the veil, that allowed them a freedom that they cherished. The attack by the right wing groups has turned this freedom into a shackle again, and Muslim women here find they have again been placed at the periphery. This will impact on their right to education, as the hijab is being used now even by top leaders in government as the 'clothing' by which the minorities can be identified.

The right to education that the young girls had claimed after decades, is being impacted and future statistics will in all probability confirm this.

Comparisons are odious. And certainly the comparison between Iran and India, if bereft of understanding and knowledge, is highly odious. In Iran it is not about Islam but about a repressive state that claims to be the custodian and the only interpreter of religion. In India lakhs of muslim women do not wear the hijab, even as lakhs do, as in this pluralistic atmosphere this was always a societal issue and little to do with the state. There was no dkitat but just societal patriarch at play that women's groups had been countering as stated earlier. Dragging it into that realm is not going to benefit the women, or society at large.

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