On September 16, a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini died in a Tehran hospital three days after being arrested by Iran’s moral police for failing to wear her hijab properly. Amini’s death, which witnesses described as the result of police brutality, unleashed a nationwide explosion of distaff outrage. In public demonstrations all over Iran, countless women have courageously torn off their veils in what looks very much like a historic demand for freedom and equality. Over 200 of them have been killed.
At this writing, the protests continue. And they’ve spread around the world. Which raises the question: is this, like the Arab Spring of a decade ago, another moment of false hope? Or does this mark the start of a real and lasting revolution against the faith-based oppression of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran? What, moreover, are the chances of this revolution spreading to the rest of the Muslim world – as well as to the parts of the Western world where there’s already a considerable Islamic presence?
Since these questions were still up in the air in late October, the producers of Debatten, an evening political discussion program on Norway’s taxpayer-funded NRK television network, decided that the topic of the October 25 show would be hijab. Just hours before the broadcast, however, the series’ host, Fredrik Solvang, announced on Instagram that his team had “received so much feedback saying that it isn’t relevant or OK to debate hijab in light of the Iran demonstrations, that we’re not going further with the plans for this evening’s Debatten.” Instead, declared series editor Gunnhild Viken shortly thereafter, that day’s program would be about rising electricity costs.
The response to this volte face was widespread. Mocking the notion that a hijab debate wasn’t “relevant” at the present historical moment, Kjetil Rolness, a sociologist who is one of Norway’s few prominent politically incorrect voices, asked sardonically on Facebook: “WHEN would it be appropriate to debate hijab if not right now?” Hege Storhaug, author of a bestselling jeremiad about Islam, agreed: what could be more relevant than a discussion of hijab, at a time when Iranian women have been waging “the fight of their lives” for freedom? Geir Furuseth, an expert on the Arab world, accused NRK of donning its own “virtual hijab.”
Exactly who, these writers wondered, had pressured NRK to put the kibosh on this debate?
Another major Norwegian critic of Islam is Lily Bandehy, who came to Norway from Iran in 1988 as a political refugee and who has since become a respected champion of free speech and women’s rights. She’d been invited to take part in the Debatten episode, and upon learning of its cancellation penned an angry op-ed. “To smother the hijab debate is a knife in the back to Iranian women,” she charged. Then again, asked Bandehy, what can one expect from NRK, which walks “on tiptoe” when it comes to “mosques and women in hijab”? How pathetic that while Iran is undergoing a women’s revolution with the hijab as its hated symbol, “in Norway…we love the hijab.”
She’s right. In Norway, the hijab is ubiquitous. It used to be a subject of debate. But that petered out. Hijab became an increasingly familiar and taken-for-granted fixture. Once seen only in certain parts of Oslo, it spread to other Oslo neighborhoods as well as to remote towns and hamlets. One day many years ago, I saw my first Oslo niqab – the garment that covers everything except a woman’s eyes, and that makes hijab, by comparison, look like a bikini. Soon that, too, became a routine sight. (In 2013, an episode of the NRK program Brennpunkt discussed the question: “What is it that is causing young Norwegian women to wear niqab?” Um, how about submission to the Islamic doctrine of female subordination?)
Meanwhile the Norwegian government – with the aid of its PR arm, NRK – has heavily promoted hijab in an obvious effort to normalize it. Since 2009, female cops have been allowed to wear hijab. From 2015 to 2017, NRK ran Skam, a Beverly Hills 90210-type series for teenagers, in which one of the main characters was a girl in hijab. In 2017, NRK, which had previously refused to allow one of its TV talking heads to wear a cross, broadcast a TV program hosted by a young woman named Faten Mahdi al-Husseini, who, wearing a hijab throughout, examined the platforms of the various political parties before deciding how to vote. (Surprise! She decided to vote for the Labour Party, to which NRK is joined at the hip.)
Last year, two sisters in hijab took part in an NRK cooking competition. Afterwards, one of the sisters, Amy Mir, was recruited to star in an NRK program about hiking in the mountains. A glowing profile at NRK’s website stated that Amy considered the hijab a “symbol of freedom.” Younger Norwegians have had this lie drummed into their heads so often that I’m sure most of them believe it. In 2022, the old hijab debate seems quaint indeed.
Nonetheless, in response to the abrupt scrubbing of the hijab episode of Debatten, the online magazine Subjekt arranged a public debate on the topic at Litteraturhuset in Oslo. The list of people invited to participate in the October 26 event was telling. All but one were women, and all but one of the women had Muslim backgrounds. Ardent opponents of Islam were conspicious by their absence.
Yes, there was a Muslim-born Progress Party official who, refusing, in her own words, to “romanticize” the hijab, noted that innumerable girls in Norway are still forced to wear it and are policed by their “mother, father, community, network, mosque, and taxi drivers.” And there was a spokeswoman for LIM, an immigrant organization whose acronym stands for “equality, inclusiveness, diversity,” who recalled that on her very first day of school in Iran, she was berated for inadvertently violating the hijab requirement.
Neither of them were hijab fans. But the others were, at best, apologists for it. An Arabist from the University of Oslo relativized the hijab, asserting that headscarves have been traditional garb in a number of cultures and religions. (She omitted to mention that in Islam, unlike many other cultures and religions, it’s a symbol of female submission.) A Muslim convert from Minotenk, an “anti-racism” group, complained about purported hate crimes against Norwegian women and girls in hijab. A hijab-clad college professor said that for her the hijab means “peace of mind” and her “identity as a Muslim.”
And a leader of the Muslim Student Association (MSU), who is also a medical student, agreed: her “hijab means everything” to her. “It’s who I am.” She admitted that women have been killed for not wearing hijab – but insisted that they’ve also been killed for wearing it. Yes, she said, support women’s rights in Iran, if you wish – but what about the limitations on women’s right to wear a hijab in France? (In fact, there was much disinformation at the debate about France, where it’s illegal to cover your face in public but not to wear a hijab.)
The MSU woman, a hothead who exuded contempt for infidels and Western values (and who, I discovered online, proposed earlier this year that the Norwegian government formulate an “action plan against Islamophobia” that would include pro-Islam lessons for schoolchildren), was palpably infuriated by the LIM woman’s proposal that religion not be pushed on minors. Parents, she demanded, should have the right to impose religious values on their kids. And she was right, generally speaking. Parents should be able to take their kids to church or synagogue; kids should be allowed to wear crosses or yarmulkes. But Islam is different.
And that’s the real issue here. Yes, in part the debate should be about parents who force children to wear hijab against their will – something that most of the participants in Wednesday’s debate claimed to oppose. But it’s also about normalizing hijab – a symbol of submission to men and of devotion to a totalitarian ideology. Crowds of women in hijab on the streets of European cities are a visible sign of the ongoing Islamization of the free West, the steady loss of civil liberties, the reversal of women’s rights, the quashing of free speech. That’s the issue. That’s the problem. But nobody on the panel was there to make this point. No Hege Storhaug, no Lily Bandehy. Why not? Presumably the people at Subjekt wanted a nice, civilized, and limited discussion free of unpleasant reminders of the full, dark reality of Islam.
For me, the unrest in Iran in recent weeks has reawakened an image that comes to me from time to time. I imagine a very unlikely, but still not entirely impossible, future time when the majority of people in the Muslim world, finally sick of living under the brutal yoke of sharia, have finally tossed out their Korans, torn off their hijabs and djellabas, kicked the mullahs and emirs to the curb, and actually instituted democratic government – while, at the same time, the countries of Western Europe, having come to the end of a long, insufficiently contested process of soft jihadist conquest, are Islamic republics along the lines of present-day Pakistan or Iran. It’s not a pleasant dream. But at a time when Muslim women in autocratic Iran are burning their hijabs and Muslim women in Norway are insisting on the centrality of their hijabs to their identity and getting angry at anyone who dares speak of integration, such images do cross one’s mind.