The West’s betrayal of the women of Iran
The morally emaciated West has failed to offer solidarity to the brave rebels against the hijab.
It’s the first anniversary of the Iranian people’s valiant revolt against the mandatory hijab law, and what is Britain doing? Erecting a vast monument in praise of the hijab. Building a colossal steel statue of a hijab-wearing woman titled Strength of the Hijab. Sixteen feet tall, a tonne weight, imperious and imposing, the statue is designed to bring ‘visibility’ to this apparently misunderstood Islamic garment. Take that, ladies of Iran – you burn the hijab, we build monuments to it.
There are times when only that old tabloid phrase, ‘You couldn’t make it up’, will do. This is one of those times. It is nothing short of extraordinary that the existence of this mammoth Islamic sculpture, this steel deification of the veil, was revealed in the same week that we marked the first anniversary of the rebellion against Iran’s veil-enforcing theocracy.
The statue will be officially installed in the Smethwick area of the West Midlands in October. It was commissioned by Legacy West Midlands, a charity that celebrates the contributions of postwar migrants to British society. You couldn’t have waited a few days before inviting the press to see and snap your hijab-sacralising pillar? You couldn’t let us mourn the hundreds of Iranian youths who have been slaughtered for opposing the hijab first?
The BBC reports that Strength of the Hijab is ‘the first of its kind in the world’ – that is, it’s the first-ever monument that will specifically sanctify the hijab. So they don’t even have one in Iran? But we’ll have one in Smethwick? Who’s the theocracy? The timing of this, the appearance of this steel icon singing the veil’s praises one year after Mahsa Amini was killed by Iran’s religious police for failing to wear the veil properly, needs to be talked about.
To my mind, this story sums up why the response in the West to the uprising in Iran has been so muted, so fainthearted and at times outright cowardly. It’s because we have institutionalised ‘respect’ for Islam. We brook no blasphemy against this religion, no ‘Islamophobia’, and thus the sight of tens of thousands of youths ditching the veil and dissing Islam’s rules makes us uncomfortable.
For a West riddled with the idea that criticising Islam is a species of bigotry, where you can even be branded ‘hijabophobic’ for expressing ‘hostility to the hijab’, an anti-Islamist revolt, a revolt that is very much ‘hostile to the hijab’, is going to arouse mixed emotions at best, and disappointment at worst. And so, we looked the other way.
Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Saqqez in Iranian Kurdistan, died in a hospital in Tehran on 16 September last year, three days after being arrested by the Guidance Patrol for failing to wear the hijab in accordance with government standards. Fury erupted across the land. Young women and men gathered in the streets to burn hijabs and give voice to their disdain for the ayatollahs. Hundreds were murdered by security forces. Many more were arrested, some executed, all for the crime of wanting to wear what they like and think how they please.
From the very beginning there was a cagey response in the West. Yes, there were fleeting bouts of virtual concern, like when celebs cut off their locks in solidarity with Iranian women. But it didn’t last. Other, apparently more important issues – ‘white supremacy’, the climate, trans rights – sidelined the Iran question. Western ‘progressives’ are too busy fighting for the right of men to be treated as women to be bothered about these women who want to be treated as human beings.
‘Why are Americans ignoring the protests in Iran?’, asked Francine Prose, the former president of the PEN America Center, two months into the revolt, in November last year. It was a good question. The killing of George Floyd by an American cop in May 2020 seemed to excite far more fury in activist circles – not only in the US but in Europe, too – than the slaying of countless people by Iranian cops. Don’t Iranian Lives Matter?
The unwillingness of our self-styled social-justice elites to grapple with the horrors in Iran was summed up in the fact that England’s footballers kept on taking the knee, in the post-Floyd BLM fashion, while uttering not a word about the murder of women in Iran for the sin of wanting to show their hair. Have you ever witnessed such moral emaciation as when the England team took the knee in November 2022 while playing Iran? There they were genuflecting against police brutality in the US while staying shamefully silent about police brutality in Iran.
Well, they wouldn’t want to be branded phobic, would they? This was the root of the silence about the Iranian rebellion – a fear of being thought a bigot, a blasphemer, one of those wicked ones who says untoward things about Islam. Kids in the West are educated from an early age that one only marvels at Islam, never dishonours it. British schoolchildren get ‘Islamophobia awareness’ training. They understand early on that severe punishment awaits those who express profane thoughts about this religion. You can be suspended from your job, like the celebrated gymnast, Louis Smith, or blacklisted from university campuses, like Richard Dawkins and Maryam Namazie.
Good, right-thinking people are expected to coo over the hijab. Witness the liberal-elite shindig that was the Women’s March, which made a woman in a hijab its chief symbol of female strength. Or those Guardian articles calling the hijab ‘political, feminist and empowering’. And now there’s the Soviet-style, one-tonne woman-in-a-hijab that will peer menacingly at believers and unbelievers alike in the West Midlands. ‘Respect me or else’, this medieval eyesore essentially says. Imagine if one of Iran’s brave female warriors were to win asylum in the UK and end up in Smethwick. From truncheon-wielding police telling her the hijab is great to a steel monolith saying the same. She’ll wonder if she’s swapped one system of sexist social control for another.
In a sense, she will have. No, Britain and America do not flog those who dissent from Islamic beliefs. We don’t jail apostates or hijab-haters. But we do punish criticism of Islam. Where Iran damns you as a ‘blasphemer’, we’ll call you an Islamophobe. Where Iran gives blasphemers a physical lashing, we give them a tongue-lashing – ‘bigot’, ‘racist’, etc. Where Iran hunts down opponents of the hijab, we call such people ‘hijabophobic’ and build monuments to remind them to worship the veil. And where Iran censors artists who mock the religion of the regime… well, so do we.
Here’s another shocking thing that happened this month, in the run-up to the first anniversary of the Iranian revolt: an Iranian artist was censored in Sweden for creating artworks that stingingly critique the Islamist regime. Tehran-born Sadaf Ahmadi’s Concrete exhibition, which featured, among other things, 10 veiled heads hanging ghost-like from ropes, was due to open at the Kulturhuset in Borås. But the gallery wrote to Ms Ahmadi saying that, given the ‘ongoing Koran burnings’ in Sweden, her exhibition would likely require heightened security, and that would be difficult to provide. So she was shushed, not by theocrats, but by liberals.
This echoed the experience of the American-Iranian artist Taravat Talepasand, whose theocracy-slamming works had a literal curtain draped over them at Macalester College in Minnesota earlier this year. There was concern they might cause ‘deep pain’ to Muslim students. Shameful women of Iran, hide your hair under a veil and your art under a sheet. As for those Koran burnings in Sweden – Iran is one of the nations heaping pressure on Sweden, and Denmark, to outlaw such fiery blasphemy. And it seems to be having some success. Anti-Islam profanity might soon be banned in those Scandinavian nations. Some in the West are basically doing the ayatollah’s dirty work for them. We’ve become an outpost of Iran’s theocratic intolerance.
There was a storm a couple of months ago when a judge in Iran decreed that three actresses who went out without a hijab were ‘mentally ill’. They were found to be suffering from an ‘anti-social disease’. It was a vile, illiberal ruling, but doesn’t it feel familiar, too? What is ‘Islamophobia’ if not a mental ailment? A phobia, after all, is an irrational fear, a malady of the mind. It isn’t only Iran that psychologises dissent – the West does, too. So much so that people didn’t even know what to say about the Iranian revolt. The dread of being marked ‘Islamophobic’ struck them dumb. Fear and cowardice are all censorship ever produces. We need to tear off our gags if we are going to give true solidarity to the women tearing off their veils.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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