Girl in hijab
Girl in hijabIstock

Havva still remembers how it felt the first time she walked in public without a headscarf. "I felt powerful," she recalls now, nearly two decades later. "Free. It was so liberating." She pauses a moment. "But it also felt -- normal. Like how it's supposed to be."

Born in Iran two years after the revolution, Havva (not her real name) now lives in New York, where she never even thinks about wearing a hijab, or covering her hair. She dresses in jeans and tight T-shirts and keeps her thick, black curls open to the wind.

But not everyone is so lucky. Last month, Iran's "morality police" bludgeoned 22-year-old Mahsa Amini to death when a wisp of hair appeared from under her hijab. Now, as the world watches the bravery of other young women in Iran fighting in her memory for their own freedom, many girls and women, even in the West, still face punishing consequences if they allow their hair to show.

Take, for instance, Aqsa Parvaz, the 16-year-old Toronto girl whose Pakistani father strangled her to death in 2007 when she refused to wear her hijab. "This is my insult," he later told the police. He showed no remorse.

Or consider Amina and Sarah Said, two sisters whose Egyptian-born father shot and killed them in Lewisville, Texas, in 2008 – punishment for their Western-style fashions and "American lifestyle," as he put it.

There are more. Indeed, a 2015 study funded by the Department of Justice estimated that 23 to 27 honor killings take place in the United States each year, most on the basis of women being seen as "too Westernized." That's a euphemism that usually means they have refused arranged marriages, escaped abusive husbands, or that they choose to wear Western fashion, with shorter sleeves, shorter skirts, and their hair flowing free.

The same happens in Europe, too, where "Maryam," (not her real name) was beaten to death in July by her brothers in Germany for going out wearing makeup and no headscarf; or where those like the Dutch "Farah," dare leave the house without hijab only when there is no possibility of being seen by family. And there are others like the Dutch-Turkish author Lale Gul, who, after writing a bestselling novel based on her life in a strict, conservative family and openly renouncing Islam, no longer has contact with her parents. Death threats from strangers and hateful remarks from passersby punctuate her days.

Amini "stands for the struggle of oppressed women in the Middle East," Gul told Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, "but it would surprise you how many women in the Netherlands and Belgium contact me about all kinds of oppression, and how they subsequently are cut off from their families and socially boycotted when they speak out."

Canadian former Muslim convert Deborah Friesen agrees. She was forced for years to wear hijab by her ex-husband, a member of the extremist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Still, she believes that Amini's story will bring strength and support to those women in their most vulnerable moments.

"The events in Iran are extremely important to start the discussion about what hijab really is and what it really does to a woman," she told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT).

Friesen was one of the fortunate ones: she escaped her marriage after 12 years, fleeing with her children in 2017 to a homeless shelter to be free of his demands – including her head covering. "These discussions will hopefully make the West realize that most women in hijab are obeying their religion, obeying their fathers, their husbands, brothers, etc." she said. "They're not doing it for empowerment."

It is for these women, wherever they live, that Havva and so many of her fellow Iranian-Americans are also now taking to the streets of U.S. cities, as they are to social media – not merely in support of the courageous women rebelling in Iran, but, in Havva's words, to "be a voice" against the oppression of all those like them.

But Havva is realistic. For her, the activism is a carefully-calculated risk. "It's possible I can never go back to Iran again after this," she says. "I've gone out in the streets without covering my face, and stood up for all these women and girls in Iran. [But] this is a fight I've been waiting for 41 years. And I think this time it is going to get somewhere."

But is that enough?

For some activists, like Yasmine Mohammed, creator of International No Hijab Day, it is but a drop in what she believes should be a raging storm. Support for those who choose to be free of hijab is crucial, yes. But to Mohammed, who also founded Free Hearts, Free Minds – an organization that supports ex-Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries -- the West fails utterly if we stop there.

While Western corporations expand commercial offerings for the hijab and the cultures that promote so-called "modest dress" – think of the Nike Pro-Hijab, made even in children's sizes, or Mattel's Hijab Barbie -- Mohammed argues they are in fact promoting the ubersexualization of young girls and the oppression of women's rights. "Developing child-sized hijabs and dolls with hijab, or depicting children in hijab on magazines or books is so toxic only the most extreme Muslims engage in it," says Mohammed, whose mother threatened to kill her when Yasmine stopped wearing the scarf. "I always hated wearing it," she told the IPT. "I hated it from the minute it was tied around my neck, suffocating me."

Yet despite this, she notes, "Here in the West it's seen as a positive thing. In reality, hijab on children is exceedingly pernicious. The hijab teaches girls that they are shameful and need to be hidden away. It strips them of any individuality they might develop. It sexualizes young girls by telling them their bodies can arouse men who might assault them or rape them if they don't cover. It is victim blaming. It is child abuse."

But more insidiously, hair is much of how we identify one another. Asked to describe how someone looks, we may mention height, or weight, or eye color; but we will almost always mention something about their hair: short hair, long hair, blonde, brunette. Cover a woman's hair, and you rob her of her individuality.

And yet there are those who choose to wear a head-covering, not only in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, but across Europe and in Canada and the United States. Should we stop them, too, as the mullahs prevent others from removing them? Should we forbid them to place headscarves on their young daughters?

Yasmine Mohammed is adamant. "It's not our business or our responsibility to determine if each individual is wearing hijab by choice or not," she says. "What is up to us to determine is if we want to be endorsing and supporting a tool of misogyny that gets women tortured, imprisoned, and killed. That's the question you need to ask yourself."

For women like Havva, though, it's something more. "At the beginning of the uprising, I was very upset," she says. "I thought, they just killed another poor girl, and nothing is going to happen. And then I saw it's not just that girl, there are people in the street, 16 years old, 20 years old, the '90s kids, and they are going into the face of these guards. And I'm thinking, 'these girls have balls.' They are so freaking brave. And so I'm hopeful. Finally, we all have hope."

Note: To read more about Havva, click here.

IPT Senior Fellow Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @abigailesman.