Emmanuel Onwubiko: Girls’ revolt in Iran: Nigerian perspective


 

Today being the international Day of the girl child which was set aside by the United Nations to speak to the issues of socio-economic inclusion of the female gender and the mainstreaming of female friendly policies by governments of nations around the world, is such a wonderful opportunity to speak about the political revolt by girls in one of the World’s most repressive and Conservative male dominated nations-Iran.

But before getting to the brief historicity of the revolution by girls in Iran, let me state that these series of street protests in that conservative Islamic nation started about the same month or thereabout when Nigeria’s highest court- the Nigerian Supreme Court passed the most controversial and backward verdict permitting the wearing of head scarves (Hijab). By Lagos school girls. In some states in Nigeria, the Nigerian Constitution is in suspension or in suspended animation in such a way that these governments at the micro level decided to void the section 10 of the Constitution on religious plurality and have set up Islamic religious police similar to the agency whose activities instigated the riots in Iran when they violated the right to life of a teenage girl for not covering her head and the physical torture on the girl led to her cruel death. In Kako state, the consumption of alcohol is prohibited but Kani state shares federally generated revenue from the commercialisation of alcohol in other federating units of the federation. Kano State runs a morality police that catches and punishes young boys who cut their hairs in such a fashion that is not to the recommendation of this so-called morality police. This illegal police of Kano State break into people’s private homes in hotels to seize alcohol and go ahead to destroy these personal assets. Also in Kano public transportation is segregated between males and females but Kano State government officials freely carry their mistresses in their private cars and drink alcohol to stupor without being harassed by these morality police operatives illegally set up by the Kano State government against the clear stipulation of the Constitution that no other policing institutions must be set up aside the Nigeria police force. In fact in Kako State this morality police did arrest members of the Nigeria Police Force seen moving with females may be to hotels.

What these two scenarios highlighted above mean is that whereas in Iran which for over four decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has been under the dictatorship of an all males dominated oligarchy/monarchy, the girls who have suffered deep repressive treatments and limitations of their child rights and/or fundamental universal human rights, are openly demonstrating against further institutionalization of policies they considered as oppressive to girls’ human rights but in Nigeria, which is a constitutional democracy, one of the most prized democratic platforms- the supreme court is busy churning out a primitive, anti-girls’ judgment permitting the wearing of Hijab.

I must state it here and now that this piece is not about any religion of some persons but basically about the social issues that come up when certain modes of dressing are imposed on certain gender as if to say they are not entitled to make their choices on what they want to wear or not.

So nobody should misread the meaning of my reflection.

By the way the wearing of Hijab or head scarves was originally the dress style of ancient Christians and Christianity existed for about 500 years before any other organised religion emanated from the Middle East. There were however far older religions before 2000 years ago such as Buddhism or African traditional Religion of our forefathers. The wearing of headscarves has always been a cultural lifestyle and not a religious edict. One then wonders from which tradition of typical Nigeria did the Supreme Court of Nigeria based that judgement on the wearing of headscarves? By the way, before the amalgamation of North and South and even till around the 1940s, there were communities in Northern Nigeria that wore no clothes but leaves fresh from trees known as the Koma people.

By the way, that supreme court’s judgment is coming at a time when there are several controversies that have come up with how some female actresses in the North of Nigeria have appeared or dressed up in public. The use of the social media platforms by the females in the North are severely inhibited by certain males invented regiment that makes you wonder whether these men live in the prehistoric era. Why for instance should a young undergraduate be dictated to how to dress or how to speak in public whereas the nation has a constituency that codifies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under chapter 4?

Now the question to ask is why are men so much concerned about how girls choose to dress in Northern Nigeria?

Another question is what is the relationship between how female students in Lagos dress to the quality of the teaching and education that they get from their schools? Or to put it more in a way we can understand, does the habit or dress make a monk? Shouldn’t parents be much more bothered with how qualitative the education of their girl child turns out daily than their mode of dressing? The man who today is the minister of interior was a governor in one corner of South West of Nigeria and he introduced the wearing of Hijab in schools. But kids from homes that are neither Christians nor Muslims went ahead to dress like masquerades to their public schools and the entire place looked like a mad house. This same man who was the governor couldn’t pay salaries to workers for years yet he was concerned more about how girls should dress in schools. Such an irony is one factor that motivated the revolt of the Iranian girls.

But some Nigerian 21st Century Judges think what is more important to them for the girls is the dressing and not what is in the brain.

Around June 2022, that crazy judgment of the Supreme Court of Nigeria granted the use of hijab by female Muslim students in Lagos State Government-owned schools.

The court delivered the ruling upholding the use of hijab by Muslim students. In a split decision of five to two a seven-member panel of the Supreme Court affirmed the July 21, 2016 judgment of the Court of Appeal, Lagos, which set aside the October 17, 2014 judgment by Justice Grace Onyeabo of the High Court of Lagos State, which upheld the hijab restriction.

Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, who wrote the lead majority judgment, which was read on Friday by Justice Tijani Abubakar, dismissed the appeal filed by Lagos State against the 2016 judgment of the Court of Appeal, Lagos, on the grounds that the appeal was without merit.

Justices on the panel were Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Justice John Inyang Okoro, Justice Uwani Aji, Justice Mohammed Garba, Justice Tijjani Abubakar, and Justice Emmanuel Agim.

The court upheld that the ban violated the Muslim students’ rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, the dignity of human persons and freedom from discrimination guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution.

The Lagos State Government had banned the use of the hijab, arguing that it was not part of the approved school uniform for pupils.

Following the ban, the students filed the suit on May 27, 2015, seeking redress and asked the court to declare the ban a violation of their rights to freedom of thought, religion and education.

The case, CA/L/135/15, is between Lagos State Government, Miss Asiyat AbdulKareem (through her father), Miss Moriam Oyeniyi and the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria. This case certainly is a gross misplacement of priority and the girls in Iran have proven that.

As aforementioned, in Iran, the girls are challenging the status quo and the male folks who dominate the politics of Iran have chosen to use the sledge hammer and brute force to kill off the protesters. Over 100 protesters have been executed by Iraninan law enforcement agencies and you then need to ask why human beings should be killed over their rejection of being forced mechanically to dress in certain ways in public. Why should human lives be sacrificed for head scarves? This is reprehensible and despicable. Tell me how is this morally justifiable? The following is the historicity of the revolt of the Iranian girls which is gaining global acclaim daily.

Historian Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, an expert on modern Iran and gender in the School of Arts & Sciences, discusses what sparked the protests and why they’re important.

Protests have erupted in dozens of Iranian cities after the death earlier this month of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, who was detained by the country’s morality police for not fully complying with Iran’s veiling laws.

Demonstrations against the death of Amini have led to violent police crackdowns, with arrests, beatings, and the killing of at least 40 people, although human rights organizations say that number is much higher. There have also been internet outages and disruptions to cut the protestors’ communication with the outside world.

Why did Amini’s death spark such intense and risky protests across the nation, and where will it all lead?

Penn Today spoke with American-Iranian historian Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, an expert on modern Iran in the School of Arts & Sciences, to hear her thoughts on the country-wide demonstrations and what it means for Iran going forward. Kashani-Sabet says, “Although we have seen the strangling of women’s voices in the past, this extraordinary movement has amplified people’s strident cries against political repression, in the face of unspeakable peril. The crime that resulted in the unjust and brutal killing of a young woman who was, in fact, very modestly dressed, is nothing short of unconscionable and horrific.”

Why did this killing inspire such intense protests?

People have a lot of pent-up frustration with the regime, and it took a violent and unjust killing such as the murder of Mahsa Amini to ignite a massive protest movement. Actually, the history of modern Iran is replete with comparable protest movements that began with a local event that gained traction and became a catalyst for political change. Iranian women have stood at the forefront of politics throughout the country’s modern history. People forget that even in the oil crisis of 1951 to 1953, for example, women’s suffrage was among the demands of the protestors.

Iranians, in particular the youth, have been frustrated with all manner of things. The pandemic has intensified the economic pressures on Iran, which already were monumental. Hardworking women and men feel the impact of the sanctions in a way that elites never do. Today’s protests represent a movement about freedom. This is a movement about women’s rights, but also about resistance to violence against women and resistance to political repression. At a time when we see a retrenchment of women’s liberties all over the world, Iranian women have taken the lead in the fight for political freedom. The protests in memory of Mahsa Amini and all the other demonstrators who have sacrificed their lives serve as a powerful call to action, especially because women themselves are now the agents of change.

What are the other grievances driving these protests?

First and foremost, people long for political freedom, which supersedes every other demand. In addition, Iran has become increasingly isolated and marginalized regionally and internationally. This isolation has placed a lot of pressure on people. Iranians are not welcome in many countries, which speaks to the unpopularity of the country’s current politics in international circles.

However, this was not always the case. It bears remembering, for example, that during the interwar period, Iran was actually one of the few countries outside the Western world that had membership in the League of Nations. It was not long ago that Iran was a leader in what later became a Third World. Now, the Islamic Republic is often described as a pariah state. This is among people’s other grievances.

How unusual is it for women to be at the forefront of a protest like this in Iran?

For Iran, it is not that unusual. During the country’s constitutional revolution, from 1906 to 1911, women clamored for change and supported the creation of Iran’s parliament. When the 1979 revolution unfolded, women participated fervidly in the protests. At the same time, however, women become a barometer of politics. The Islamic Republic often targeted women to assert its power. For example, after 1979, reproductive rights were regulated in ways that proved less liberal for women. Mandatory veiling was imposed, and, of course, some people will say, ‘Well, there was also mandatory unveiling in 1936.’ But the mandatory unveiling decree was very short-lived, only a handful of years, whereas we now have more than 40 years of women not having the choice.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 declared a culture war (kulturkampf) that unabashedly targeted women. This is why it is remarkable that Iranian women put their lives in jeopardy, particularly young women, but we see some older women, too, in these powerful protests, to demand freedom and justice. They can be imprisoned, they can be murdered, they can be physically abused, they can be subjected to surveillance, and their families as well. There’s a whole host of things that can happen to activists in general, but especially activist women in Iran. It’s a tremendous risk.

Where do you see things going from here? Do you have a sense of how it will end?

This is a moment of reckoning, a moment for the country and the world to say, ‘We are behind the good fight.’ It’s a fight not just against one unnecessary murder, but many. It is a fight not only for women to have a choice in what they wear, how they speak, and what they do. Rather, it’s a call for freedom and enfranchisement, a movement that will allow people to reclaim the political process and define the future of their country. There is a lot at stake. The level of intensity in the protests is therefore entirely warranted. The unflappable resolve and determination of Iranians in these demonstrations have not been replicated in other iterations of political dissent since 1979.

Why is that? Why is it particularly intense now?

I believe we are witnessing a unity of cause—internationally and domestically—that did not exist in previous protest movements against the Islamic Republic. People of different ages and generations, people of different classes and backgrounds, are protesting together in one voice and in a brave and unwavering show of defiance. The outrage over the death of Mahsa Amini and others gets at the root of violence toward women everywhere, and this powerful message is one that cannot be easily dismantled. On the contrary, any attempt at silencing it will only result in further dissent.

What is most important for Americans to understand about what’s happening?

Americans need to understand that many Iranians are fed up with the failures of their government. A pervasive sense of anger and exasperation has compelled the youth in particular to fight for a better future. Right now, Americans need to abandon the notion that Iran and America will forever be at loggerheads. Instead, it is crucial for the United States to try and embrace a movement that is grassroots in nature and represents the good fight.

America should not be cautious about standing with Iranian protestors, especially women. This is the people’s fight: a battle for justice, freedom, and women’s rights. It is a fight for giving people the freedom of choice. It is a fight against oppression and a fight for the future of a nation and its people. The American public needs to rally behind this cause and take a stance against injustice.

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Her forthcoming book, “Heroes to Hostages: America and Iran, 1800-1988,” (Cambridge University Press), will be published in 2023.

We will not end this reflection without mentioning that Nigerian women also have their great historical battles that have helped to shape things in Nigeria and it is not impossible that those girls in Northern under constant repressive policies of their lawless states may one day say enough is enough on how they are married off so early and on how they suffer deliberate deprivation of many social choices. This is so because Nigeria has a great history of women revolt. One of such battles for social change in Nigeria is the Aba women’s riot, as recorded by a historian. The “riots” or the war, led by women in the provinces of Calabar and Owerri in southeastern Nigeria in November and December of 1929, became known as the “Aba Women’s Riots of 1929” in British colonial history, or as the “Women’s War” in Igbo history. Thousands of Igbo women organized a massive revolt against the policies imposed by British colonial administrators in southeastern Nigeria, touching off the most serious challenge to British rule in the history of the colony. The “Women’s War” took months for the government to suppress and became a historic example of feminist and anti-colonial protest.

The roots of the riots evolved from January 1, 1914, when the first Nigerian colonial governor, Lord Lugard, instituted the system of indirect rule in Southern Nigeria. Under this plan British administrators would rule locally through “warrant chiefs,” essentially Igbo individuals appointed by the governor. Traditionally Igbo chiefs had been elected.

The historian also recorded that within a few years the appointed warrant chiefs became increasingly oppressive. They seized property, imposed draconian local regulations, and began imprisoning anyone who openly criticized them. Although much of the anger was directed against the warrant chiefs, most Nigerians knew the source of their power, British colonial administrators. Colonial administrators added to the local sense of grievance when they announced plans to impose special taxes on the Igbo market women. These women were responsible for supplying the food to the growing urban populations in Calabar, Owerri, and other Nigerian cities. They feared the taxes would drive many of the market women out of business and seriously disrupt the supply of food and non-perishable goods available to the populace. In November of 1929, thousands of Igbo women congregated at the Native Administration centers in Calabar and Owerri as well as smaller towns to protest both the warrant chiefs and the taxes on the market women. Using the traditional practice of censoring men through all night song and dance ridicule (often called “sitting on a man”), the women chanted and danced, and in some locations forced warrant chiefs to resign their positions. The women also attacked European owned stores and Barclays Bank and broke into prisons and released prisoners. They also attacked Native Courts run by colonial officials, burning many of them to the ground. Colonial Police and troops were called in. They fired into the crowds that had gathered at Calabar and Owerri, killing more than 50 women and wounding over 50 others. During the two month “war” at least 25,000 Igbo women were involved in protests against British officials. These comprehensive narratives were documented in the work titled Aba Women’s Riots (November-December 1929) published in www.blackpast.org. So if you are a governor and you decide to churn out policies or legislations that limit the enjoyment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the fundamental human rights of all Nigerians and then single out girls and women for repression, then get ready for a Nigerian girls’ Revolt soon. The females have done it before and can do their fight for liberation again and this time, most members who support Women’s human rights will fight in solidarity with girls because Women’s rights are human rights.

EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) and one time National commissioner of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.

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