LONDON — Imagine making a televised court appearance broadcast to the whole nation to make a humbling, humiliating apology for … showing your hair. Last Sunday, the Iranian regime carried out just such a “public shaming” of some of the country’s most famous models.
With a black scarf and black gloves replacing the happy wedding outfits and brightly dyed blond hair to which her Instagram followers had become accustomed, 26-year-old Elham Arab confirmed to two prosecutors that modeling had brought her nothing but “bitter experiences.” She went on to warn aspiring young models that they “can be certain that no man would want to marry a model whose fame has come by losing her honor.”
Welcome to Operation Spider 2. Yes, Iran’s War Against Hair even has a code name. In a sting led by no less significant a unit than Iran’s cybercrimes division, eight other models were arrested and charged with “promoting western promiscuity.” State prosecutor for cybercrimes Javad Babaei confirmed that his unit was focused on Instagram and is concerned with “sterilizing popular cyberspaces.” Many of the country’s leading models have reportedly suffered this clampdown. They are accused of promoting "immoral and un-Islamic culture and promiscuity.” Another state prosecutor warned the nation’s women, “If you take part in vulgar sessions, we will publicly announce your names.”
Such is the Iranian theocracy’s fascination with female hair, that even elected officials have not been spared by the morality police. Moderate female politician Minoo Khaleghi was barred by the hard-line all-male Guardian Council from taking her seat in parliament, after images of her emerged on social media purportedly showing her without a head scarf. Prosecutor Jafar-Dolatabadi ordered Ms. Khaleghi to explain to judicial officials why the “offending” images of her existed. For her part, Khaleghi had no choice but to prop up the absurd notion that there’s something wrong with showing one’s hair by arguing that the images are “malicious fakes” and proclaiming, “I am a Muslim woman, adhering to the principles of Islam.”
As moderate political forces continue to gain ground in Iran’s educated city centers, establishment clampdowns against “Western promiscuity” are becoming more visible, and more desperate.
Last year, hardliners warned Iranian women that they would have their cars impounded if they were caught driving without a hijab, or headcovering. And every time a woman has tried to run for president, she has always been turned down by the country’s powerful Guardian Council, which vets all candidates for public office.
For a long time, with the notable exception of France’s peculiar stance, Western democracies have stepped away from interfering in how a woman chooses to dress. Rightly so, the law has pulled back in order to allow culture to decide the issue. With men and women free to participate in the debate around headscarves, one key principle has been safeguarded: that of choice.
But in societies where imprisonment, and worse, awaits millions of women if they choose to uncover their hair, the brave voices— a minority within the minority—who break this taboo within their own communities, become crucial. Positive signs are emerging of some who have started to question the sexual taboos prevalent among Muslim communities.
Feminist Arab authors are writing about the need for a sexual revolution in the Arab world. Male Arab journalists are penning columns about the sexual misery in the Middle East. Feminist Muslim women are organizing online magazines such as Sister-hood and Sedaa in order to reclaim a voice for female secular progressives of Muslim heritage. Head-scarfed women have chosen to remove their hijabs in defiance of restrictions on female dress. Other women have taken to more radical action, by protesting naked.
Exhibitions have emerged challenging assumptions around sexuality in Islam. Islamic theologians have started to question openly whether the hijab is religiously mandatory. And in a recent courageous move, Zahra Haider—an unmarried Pakistani Muslim woman—has even written a column about her sexual experiences with 12 different partners while living in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. This led to quite an online furor, as one can imagine.
These are all examples by Muslim, non-Muslim, male and female activists. Everyone has a stake in this debate, because everyone suffers its consequences. Just as one need not be gay to challenge homophobia, nor black to challenge racism: One need not be a Muslim woman to challenge theocratic misogyny.
A desire to restrict any of these voices is a desire to control. When enforced on others, religion becomes nothing but a tool of power and control. Sexuality, in particular, obsesses male theocrats more so than any other topic.
Whether in Iran and Saudi Arabia, where women’s dress is government enforced, or in Syria and Afghanistan, where Islamist terrorists seek to enforce it, or across Muslim-majority nations more generally, sexual expression has fast become a dividing line for fundamentalists harboring presumptuous assumptions about a “pure” East and a “promiscuous” West.
Oddly, hundreds of years ago it was the opposite. A Europe in the Dark Ages, plagued by the Inquisition and conflicts caused by religious intolerance, placed a similar premium on sexuality. Back then, it was the East that European Orientalists fetishized as overly “promiscuous,” while the West valued its prudishness. The one common factor is a correlation between the rise of theocratic demands anywhere, and restrictions on sexuality.
In this way, sexuality has become the axis upon which enlightened values and progress have pivoted between nations. Sexual freedoms have become a litmus test between open societies and closed ones. The drug that dogmatic ideologues are usually addicted to is control, and the thirst for control almost always manifests itself in sexual control. This is why the subject of sex among women, gays and “unmarried” youth fascinates extremists of all bents. And it is why—regardless of our gender or sexual orientation—the struggle against controlling sexuality should preoccupy us all.