As protesters decry Iran’s repressive policies, anti-hijab rhetoric rises in Baltimore and beyond | GUEST COMMENTARY

Kurdish supporters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as PKK, hold a portrait of Iranian Mahsa Amini, with an Arabic placard that reads, "Women are life, don't kill the life," during a protest against her death in Iran, in Beirut on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022. Amini, 22, who died in Iran while in police custody, was arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating its strictly-enforced dress code. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

On Sept. 16, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, after spending three days in a coma. According to her family and human rights groups, she sustained life-threatening injuries at the hands of so-called “morality police” presumably because her hijab failed to comply with the public dress code.

On that exact same day, at a public high school in Baltimore, Maryland, a 16-year-old Afghan teen who’d recently arrived in the United States with her family after her country’s government collapsed to the Taliban, was locked inside a school bathroom by a staff member and ruthlessly beaten by other students who pummeled her head, forcibly ripped off her hijab that she chooses to wear, and attempted to choke her with it.


She survived the brutal assault, which was reported to police and brought to our attention by a caseworker helping the family. But she suffered extensive bruises, scrapes and swelling around her neck, as well as a debilitating concussion with lingering symptoms that typically accompany traumatic brain injuries including headaches, dizziness, confusion and disorientation.

As the Maryland office of our civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, worked with her and her family to collect details and seek restorative justice, accountability and policy changes within the school system, which investigated promptly, I also watched along with others as historic protests transcending religion, class and ethnicity erupted across the globe, in solidarity with Mahsa Amini and others fighting against oppression in Iran.


It’s difficult to imagine the pain and grief her parents are enduring at the loss of their daughter under these senseless circumstances.

As I reflect on their loss, I also recall the pain and confusion of the Afghan father in Baltimore, afraid to send his visibly Muslim daughter to school. He could have lost his daughter too, over a headscarf that she chooses to wear due to her religious beliefs. It’s a pain and fear no parent should ever have to experience.

While we advocate for this student whose religious head covering, a constitutionally protected article of faith, was weaponized against her by those who also sought to violently strip her of her agency, it’s crucial that we ring the alarm on the dangerous, far-reaching implications of unchecked Islamophobia and anti-hijab rhetoric.

The demonstrators organizing rallies following Mahsa Amini’s untimely, suspicious death are largely protesting what they view as the Iranian government’s use of religious edicts as a political tool to manipulate and violently exert authority over girls and women.

Regardless of our religion, politics or location, demanding accountability for Mahsa Amini’s death and standing up against violence against women should unite people around the world. But amid this important struggle, something alarming is also happening.

As demonstrators voice their grief, anger and frustration over the Iranian government’s repressive policies, many, including me, have noticed a dangerous uptick in Islamophobic, anti-hijab rhetoric both online and in our personal circles.

Some voices on both the left and the right have broadly condemned the hijab as a tool of oppression instead of as the personal religious choice that it is for the vast majority of Muslim women who voluntarily wear it.

Friends have been harassed at the supermarket and even their children’s school about their decision to wear the headscarf. An influencer with over 1 million followers shared an uncomfortable exchange with a nail technician who made inappropriate, intrusive comments about her hijab. Commentary in the media, signs at protests and comments on many online articles and posts have been openly hostile toward Islam.


Others have used the crisis as an opportunity to push an Islamophobic agenda by demanding sanctions that would harm innocent Iranian people, an end to nuclear deal negotiations, and even outright war against Iran.

All of this is unacceptable and doesn’t represent true solidarity with Iranian women.

The world must rightfully stand with women and girls everywhere fighting against gender-based violence. But that fight — whether against governments, ideologies or individuals — must be principled, morally consistent and without bigotry.

When ally-ship selectively manifests only for those choosing to take off the hijab, but not for those choosing to put it on, it translates into Islamophobia that risks perpetuating more violence against girls and women. That’s not solidarity.

When a legitimate, worthy cause is co-opted as a cover to vilify Islam, push for sanctions that harm innocent Iranians, or advocate for a disastrous war, that’s not solidarity.

When people enthusiastically support women killed overseas by American adversaries, but steadfastly ignore women killed overseas by our government’s allies, that’s not true solidarity.


As the force that’s launched a massive movement to galvanize change and fight gender-based oppression, these double standards do a disservice to Mahsa Amini’s legacy.

Our liberation is intertwined, it’s often said that none of us are free until all of us are free. The freedom for all girls and women to peacefully protest without fear of violence must be protected at all costs.

In Maryland, we can do that by not fueling Islamophobia even as we justly demand accountability and criticize oppressive governments, and by consistently standing up for the safety of all girls and women, from Mahsa Amini in Iran to an Afghan teen in Baltimore.

Zainab Chaudry (Twitter: Zainab Chaudry) is director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) office in Maryland.