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The Great Cover-Up

Islamists used a religious lie to crush Mahsa Amini, but women can win this war.

· 8 min read
The Great Cover-Up
A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini. Photo by Ozan Kose via Getty Image

Mahsa Amini’s death sentence was written 43 years ago, and it is based on a lie. On that day—February 1st, 1979—a fanatical cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, arrived in Iran from exile in Paris and seized power in the nation. He abolished democracy, civil rights, and the freedom of women to feel the wind in their hair, the sun on their arms, and the grass on their legs. Since that day, tyrannical Muslim clerics from Iran to Indonesia and my native India have controlled generations of women with that lie—the lie that God commands women to cover their hair to protect their honor and chastity. They have incorrectly called this cover “hijab.” But women can win the war against dress codes and gender apartheid because the world can finally see the injustice and absurdity of their violence.

This lie has had plenty of enablers since Khomeini’s austere and cruel religious coup 43 years ago. These enablers come in many forms, and many of them wear a Western secular face, notably US fashion houses and bloggers, and women’s and girls’ magazines like Glamour and Teen Vogue. In that world, where nothing—including the truth—may be said or written that might possibly be judged as “Islamophobic,” the mandatory wearing of the hijab has been transformed from a cudgel used to control and oppress women into a fashionable item of liberation.

This Orwellian distortion has been as semantically disingenuous as it has been dangerous, and it provides cover to repressors disguised as emancipators. This weekend, the Los Angeles Times opened its pages to another apologist, “hijab fashion blogger” Hoda Katebi, who blames “Western imperialism” rather than the tyranny of clerics for the oppression of women in Iran.

Katebi may be just another tiresome blowhard, but when the arbiters of Western fashion help to codify repression as normality, they empower and encourage tyranny. On the evening of Tuesday, September 13th, Tehran’s “morality police” shoved Mahsa Amini, an innocent young woman from Iran’s Kurdish minority, into their police van and took her away to a notorious detention center. Her crime? Improperly wearing her “hijab.” Today, she lies buried in the soil of her home province of Kurdistan, a victim of alleged violence by her interrogators. Many are calling her death murder. “I am dying from grief,” her bereaved mother told Iranian news media.

In the days since, the people of Iran have exploded in righteous anger. A grieving sister cuts locks of her hair at the graveside of her brother, killed in anti-regime protests. A white-haired woman waves her headscarf in the air during protests. The hope for throngs of protesting Iranians is that the death of Mahsa Amini harkens the overdue death of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mahsa’s death is personal to me. I’m a Muslim woman born in India and raised in the United States, with the freedom to dress as I please. The ringing alarms of Mahsa’s life support system echo in my ears and in my heart. Can any person of conscience fail to be moved by the heartbreaking video that captured her final moments at Kasra Hospital in downtown Tehran? This isn’t how a woman’s life is supposed to end.

Death in Tehran

It took a long time to recreate Mahsa’s last hours, but it is important to understand the details—and the geography—to grasp the close quarters and surveillance by which the Iranian regime and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) terrorize Iranians. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have designated the IRGC a terrorist organization. Other countries must follow suit. They must sanction its leader; deny its cadres and family members travel visas; freeze its assets; impose sanctions on its instruments of terror in Iran, including the “morality police”; and refuse further negotiations on the “nuclear deal” with its rogue terrorist government.

When Mahsa and her family ventured from their home in the town of Saqez in the province of Kurdistan for Tehran, it was for a simple holiday to the big city before Mahsa started university classes. Tehran is divided into 22 districts that cover about 280 square miles, roughly the area of Chicago. About 16 million people live in Tehran (comparable to the population of Tokyo) in a nation of about 84 million people. Iran is the 17th most populous country in the world, just ahead of Turkey and Germany.

According to her family’s accounts, at around 6pm on that fateful day, vice squad officers of the Gasht-e Ershad (“Guidance Patrol”) suddenly blocked Mahsa’s path as she and her brother walked out of the Shahid Haghani Metro Station near the National Museum of the Islamic Republic and Holy Defense. Mahsa was covered in a black gown and scarf, but according to Brigadier-General Hossein Rahimi, the head of Tehran's police, the officers reprimanded her for being “dressed inappropriately” in tight pants and incorrect headscarf.

Her brother, Kiaresh Amini, explained they were from out-of-town and begged the officers to let them go. Instead, they grabbed Mahsa and threw her into the van, while an agent restrained Kiaresh by twisting his arm behind his back. The officers told him they were taking her to a “re-education class” at the Vozara Street detention center, a few miles away—the headquarters of the much-feared morality police. Kiaresh followed the van.

There, according to CCTV footage released by the Iranian authorities, the young woman walked through the detention facility into a room packed with rows of chairs and women. According to state officials, a female official shrouded in a veil and gown tugged at Mahsa’s headscarf before the young woman collapsed to the floor. The family says she had been beaten beforehand.

Outside, her brother heard screams. As family members frantically banged on the door, security officers assaulted them with batons and tear gas. An ambulance sped away from the building. Kiaresh desperately showed photos of his sister to the young women scrambling out. One of them told him that she had held Mahsa in her arms, trying to comfort her. Shocked, he ran the few blocks to the neighborhood’s government-run Kasra Hospital, where he found Mahsa intubated, an intravenous drip in her arm and her face swathed in bandages. That same night, doctors told the family that they wouldn’t be able to save her.

‘Women-Gods’ replaced by terror

The women burning their scarves in Iran today carry the ancestral spirit of divine feminine deities that predated the birth of Islam. As far back as 4000 BCE, Persians worshipped “Women Gods” called Zan-khodayan. They admired the leadership of female monarchs with names like Queen Amestris, Queen Anzaze, and Queen Zand through the centuries.

Amid the rise of dogmatic clerics in the early 20th century, Iranian women met in 1910 and organized “The Ladies’ Secret Society,” writes Iranian-born author Manda Zand Ervin in a book of that name. The societies taught girls in schools, published magazines, hosted conferences, and urged reforms to protect the rights of women and children. But with the rise of movements promoting Muslim supremacy, Islamic theocracy, and religious law (sharia) in governance, a new threat emerged to women’s rights: political Islam, or Islamism.

I was 13 years old, growing up in Morgantown, West Virginia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, when Khomeini rose to power in 1979. It was a victory for the theocrats of the minority Shia sect of Islam. A few weeks later, on International Women’s Day, March 8th, 1979, Manda Zand Ervin marched from Tehran University through the city with her grandmother, mother, daughter, and an estimated 100,000 other women. “Freedom is not Eastern or Western,” they chanted. “It is universal!”

But the women’s movement attracted ferocious opposition. Across the Persian Gulf, clerics in Saudi Arabia competed for global domination with their own dogmatic interpretation of Sunni Islam, and they began to export a mistranslation of the Qur’an across the world that demanded women cover every strand of our hair. It would become a potent propaganda point for the dogmatists.

I learned that in a very personal way. In Morgantown one day, a cousin admonished my parents that I should cover my legs, bare under my shorts, as I ran around our Coliseum track. “It is haram,” he declared, using the Arabic word for “illegal.” My mother, who had grown up in India shrouded in a black gown and face veil, rejected the puritanical dress code of clerics. My father, whose mother in the 1950s was the first in our ancestral town of Azamgarh to take off the veil, also ignored the call to cover me up.

They knew for certain that the truth was being tortured. Today, Islamists from Iran to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Afghanistan, and even Houston, Texas, lie when they claim the Arabic word hijab means “headscarf.” In Arabic, hijab means “curtain” and is also used to mean “hiding,” “obstructing,” and “isolating” someone or something. Not once does the Qur’an use hijab to mean head covering. The edict that women cover their hair hinges on Qur’anic misinterpretations.

The word hijab, or its derivative, appears only nine times in the Qur’an. On my Substack, I have spelled out the many meanings of the term in an effort to help end this deception:

  1. “Wall of separation” between heaven and hell (7:46)
  2. “Barrier” and “concealed partition” (17:45)
  3. “Screen” (19:17)
  4. “Partition” (25:53) During the fifth year of the prophet Muhammad’s migration, or hijra, to Medina, some wedding guests overstayed their welcome at the prophet’s home. Some rules of etiquette were established for speaking to the wives of prophet Muhammad: “And when ye ask of them anything, ask it of them from behind a hijab. This is purer for your hearts and for their hearts.” Hijab here meant a partition or curtain.
  5. “Partition” or “curtain” (33:53)
  6. “Hidden” or “darkness” (38:32)
  7. “Partition” (41:5) In the Qur’an, hijab never means an act of piety. Instead, it has a negative connotation, noting in this verse “our hearts are under hijab.”
  8. A “wall of separation” (42:52)
  9. “Barred” or “denied access” from God (83:15) “Surely, they will be mahjaboon from seeing their Lord that day,” this verse reads. Mahjaboon is a derivate verb from hijab. The Saudi translation of the Qur’an translates it as “veiled.” Actually, in this usage, it means, “denied access.”

The verse most commonly cited by clerics in defense of the headscarf (33:59) states, “Oh, Prophet tell thy wives and thy daughters and the believer women to draw their jilbab close around them; this will be better so that they be recognized and not harmed and God is the most forgiving, most merciful.” According to Arabic dictionaries, jilbab means “long, overflowing gown,” the traditional dress at the time. The Saudi government’s translation, however, adds parenthetical phrases to read as follows:

O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e., screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed, and God is most forgiving, most merciful.

That’s right, one eye. The other verse (24:31) widely used to justify the mandatory headscarf states:

…and tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity, and do not reveal their adornment except what is already shown; and draw their khemar over their neck.

In old Arabic poetry, the khemar was a fancy silk scarf worn by affluent women, not a headscarf.

Sadly, this is why Mahsa Amini died—because people who should know better have embraced a lie that allows Iran’s mullahs to terrorize women into observing their strict ideology—an ideology informed not by pious religious observance, but by the very earthly desire to shackle women’s bodies, lives, and liberty. Media outlets, thought leaders, progressives, and ordinary citizens must look at the protests now roiling Iran and stand with the women and men of Iran refusing regressive Islamic dress codes. Today’s feminists of Iranian heritage constitute a courageous new Ladies’ UnSecret Society, and they have a stirring new anthem and battle cry: “I am not a whore. I am not a tramp… I am not alone… I’ve gotta take it off.”

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