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Sohrab Ahmari's Vacuous Critique of the Anti-Hijab Protests
In his illiberal worldview, religious order is preferable to justice
When I was in London last month, one of my more memorable moments was seeing large and energetic protests on Trafalgar Square, two days in a row, against the Islamist government in Iran. Green, white and red Iranian flags were everywhere, as were portraits of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who was arrested by the mullahs’ notorious “morality police” in Tehran on September 13 for failing to wear her hijab—her headscarf—in accordance with government standards. Amini died at a hospital three days later, reportedly after a beating while in police custody.
In the London protests over her death, the chant “Woman, Life, Freedom”—led by women, but picked up by many men—filled the air. Despite the tragic theme of Amini’s almost certainly violent death, the demonstration was an exhilarating event. Other than Ukraine’s titanic battle against a grimly autocratic Russia, the struggle of Iranian women—and Iranian men who chafe at the Islamic Republic—is the most visible, most clearcut, and most heroic fight for freedom unfolding in the world today. And the fight continues, with protests still sweeping Iran more than a month after Amini’s death and with a recent wave of solidarity protests in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Berlin.
Not everyone is impressed, though. Earlier this month, prominent “national conservative” author Sohrab Ahmari—himself an Iranian émigré and an ex-Muslim atheist-turned-conservative Catholic—penned a column in The American Conservative titled “Iran’s Empty Uprising.” Ahmari’s illiberal critique of Iran’s illiberal dress code provides a useful contrast to the debates in liberal democracies over dress codes—and, ironically, an indication of substance, not emptiness, of both liberalism and the Iranian uprising itself.
Ahmari is no fan of the present Iranian regime, which he describes as the product of a revolution born from “a heady mix of Third Worldist Marxism, developmentalism, and Islamic revulsion at the moral laxity” of Iranian society under the last Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi. Ahmari acknowledges the regime’s brutality as well as its patronage system of material benefits for regime supporters “amid the economic misery caused by sanctions and domestic mismanagement.” But he doesn’t think the liberal opposition has anything of substance to offer because it cannot answer “the question of who should rule Iran, and on the basis of which principle.”
As fellow Iranian émigré Shay Khatiri points out in The Bulwark, Ahmari clearly believes that self-government through representative democracy is an unsatisfying and implausible answer. Ahmari even finds a preferable alternative in “the aging Pahlavi dauphin, whom polls show to be one of the most popular figures among Iranians”—i.e. the present Reza Pahlavi, the last shah’s exiled son. (Ironically, as Khatiri notes, Pahlavi is on record as favoring a secular parliamentary democracy in Iran.)
Yet what’s truly notable about Ahmari’s article, apart from his skepticism of democracy, is his loathing of philosophical liberalism—a culture of individual rights, personal freedom and social modernization. He stresses that he joins the dissidents “in wishing for an Iran where young women aren’t killed for crossing modesty norms.” So far, so good, but does Ahmari think it’s acceptable for the government to legislate and enforce modesty norms—including compulsory hijab, or head covering—as long as the enforcement doesn’t turn overly brutal or even lethal? The answer seems to be yes. Based on his article and a recent tweet, his greatest distaste is reserved for Pahlavi-era Iran’s immodest Western female dress, which he asserts played “no small role” in provoking the backlash that powered Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution of 1978-9.
In singling this out, Ahmari elides the fact that Pahlavi’s push for modernization included not only Western clothing, but an expansion of women’s rights in the home, in education and in the workplace, including family laws that raised girls’ legal marrying age from 13 to 18 and abolished the husband’s right to unilaterally divorce his wife and automatically claim custody of the children. These reforms, which I would hope a conservative Christian would support, were scrapped during the Khomeini period, and the age of marriage was actually lowered to nine, though later raised back to 13. Women did regain some ground after Khomeini’s death, particularly in higher education, but this hardly redressed the imbalance.
Ahmari’s distaste for the present-day Iranian protesters is also clearly driven at least in part by the same dislike for feminism, sexual liberation and what he calls “expressive individualism.” He scoffs at the opposition’s “vague, sentimental liberalism, complete with bare-naked Femen activists sounding no less shrill in Persian than their Western counterparts do in French or English.” This last dig is rather misleading: There are certainly no female protesters in Iran baring anything more than their heads, and while several activists from the radical feminist group Femen, notorious for their bare-breasted protests, did stage such a demonstration in front of Iranian embassy in Madrid, Spain, in September, the solidarity protests abroad have largely eschewed such tactics.
But never mind, because Ahmari even derides “the protests’ downright vacuous slogan, ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’”—even though, given that women are the protests’ driving force and that women’s oppression was their proximate cause, “Woman” seems entirely appropriate, while “Life” and “Freedom” are pretty meaningful under a regime that often tramples both. And still not content, Ahmari jeeringly asks, “What principle of unity and continuity do you propose? ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’? LGBTQIA+ Pride?”
OK, we get it: Ahmari really, really hates the upending of traditional sexual and gender norms in the West. His crusade against the “demonic” practice of Drag Queen Story Hour is legendary. But one needn’t subscribe to progressive dogma on gender identity to be troubled by Ahmari’s “national conservatism,” which responds to these controversies by advocating coercion, as the latest step in Ahmari’s intellectual journey makes especially clear. Between a liberal society that tilts too far toward female and LGBT liberation—even if “too far” means merely allowing women to offend traditionalists with short skirts—and an authoritarian regime that compels the hijab and allows barely pubescent girls to be married to middle-aged men, Ahmari dislikes the liberal society more. His column makes it clear that he regards victory by the liberal opposition in Iran as not just unrealistic but undesirable: “I fear what it might portend should it ‘succeed,’” he writes.
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To be fair, liberal democracies, like their illiberal counterparts, have often struggled to find the right balance in their treatment of the hijab. In the West, debates about the hijab, and more generally the treatment of women in Islam, have often been reduced to polarized caricature.
Because, for instance, the hijab has been an instrument of coercion and intolerance in countries like Iran, some liberal democracies have moved to ban Islamic head covering, at least in certain settings, such as government institutions. The trouble with this approach was demonstrated by the secular Pahlavi regime in Iran when it banned the hijab in 1936; at the time, the police often forcibly unveiled women, and many traditionalist women—not only Muslim, but Christian and Jewish—began to avoid going out because they felt that being out with one’s head uncovered was indecent. While these rules were eventually relaxed under the later Pahlavi shahs, the original police coercion partly explains why the hijab was adopted by many women as a symbol of resistance under the final Shah of Iran.
On the other hand, some progressives have conflated all critiques of veiling or of other conservative Muslim gender norms with anti-Muslim bigotry. In a notorious 2015 incident, the feminist and LGBT student groups at Goldsmith University in England actually declared their solidarity with a conservative Islamic student group that protested and disrupted a talk by exiled Iranian atheist feminist Maryam Namazie. More recently, Boston City Councilor Tanya Fernandes Anderson introduced a resolution to recognize Mahsa Amini’s birthday as “Boston Hijab Day” to combat Islamophobia and honor the hijab as part of “a woman’s right to self-expression.” Anderson claimed she meant to underscore that whether, and how, to wear the headscarf should be a free choice, but linking the event to Amini’s death, caused by tyranny in the name of hijab, was still tone-deaf and cringey.
In yet another take, some on the anti-“politically correct” right fan hostility toward even freely chosen hijab-wearing in the West and conflate the defense of voluntary hijab—which can be seen as similar to head-covering by Orthodox Jews—with the defense of oppressive Islamism. For example, shortly after the start of the protests sparked by Amini’s death, Asra Nomani, a self-described Muslim feminist turned Donald Trump supporter and conservative pundit, wrote a mostly compelling and informative piece arguing that the requirement that women cover their heads is a distortion of original Muslim texts. However, she also suggested that all arguments in favor of voluntary hijab came from surreptitious “repressors.”
Unfortunately, this suggests that every Muslim women who chooses to wear a hijab has demonstrated her victimhood, rather than her own conscious decision—one deserving respect. And while hijab critics such as Nomani are right when they say that defenses of the hijab in the name of “cultural diversity” tend to glide over the misogyny and repression often associated with head and especially face covering, these same critics also ignore the fact that women who choose to wear the headscarf in the West do sometimes meet with public hostility and suspicion, and that anyone who cares about freedom should condemn such bigotry.
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Regardless of all these tensions, controversies over the hijab in the secularized West generally take place in a context of free choice and pluralism, despite some lapses from these values. Ultimately, both critics and defenders of voluntary hijab see themselves as defending freedom of choice for women—they just disagree about how that freedom should be defended and what threatens it. Critics like Ahmari may scoff at liberal confusion over “which principle” should serve as the basis for laws and rules, but such debates can help draw important distinctions between coercion and choice and formulate policies that protect the safety and autonomy of all women—those pressured to wear the hijab by their families or religious communities, or those harassed for wearing the hijab by bullies.
In Iran, choice, pluralism and the freedom to debate legal rules and moral norms are still only a vision for the protesters whose slogans Ahmari mocks as “vacuous.” Because the Iranian people are denied liberal democracy, they are left to threaten a revolution—and perhaps to fight one—if they want to end the daily injustices Iranian women must face. And yet in the free world, for some conservatives of the new nationalist-populist breed, it seems that freedom of choice itself is no longer a value worth defending.
Iranians are choosing freedom: While 85 percent in the early 1980s thought mandatory hijab was justified, only 35 percent thought so more recently, according to a parliamentary report published in 2018. Here’s hoping that those, in Iran or in the West, who reject freedom because it leads to too much “individualism” or too many “wrong” choices find themselves on the wrong side of history.