I’m a Sudanese woman – the protests in Iran mirror my own tangled history with clothing and freedom | Basma Khalifa

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On 16 September, Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran’s morality police after supposedly wearing her hijab incorrectly and sporting skinny jeans. Later that night, she died in their custody. Amini’s family claim the morality police beat her to death, an accusation they have since denied. What has followed have been the country’s largest protests in recent years. Iranians of all ages, ethnicities and genders have joined in the demonstrations. I watched on and did my due diligence by posting on social media too, but I also couldn’t help reflect on my own relationship to clothing – and freedom.

Can you be free and wear the hijab? It’s worn by many of my family and friends, and it was always presented to me as a choice when I was young. Modesty, however, was more important. I’m of Sudanese origin but I grew up in Northern Ireland, where, as a teenager, it wasn’t trendy to cover up. I spent years battling with my parents, who would be telling me that I was showing too much skin, that I should never show my cleavage or midriff. In the late 1990s fashions changed from crop tops to long T-shirts. I remember my mother’s relief that we wouldn’t have to go through the “go get changed” conversation every time I wanted to leave the house.

But then, one day, in my late teens, I was sifting through old photo albums. I found a black-and-white photo from the 1950s of my mother and her sisters in Sudan, standing side by side wearing shift dresses, and all I could see were shoulders and knees. The double standards didn’t make sense. I later asked my mother about it, airing my frustrations at the hypocrisy. She was left a little lost for words as she tried to explain how the cultural and religious climate in Sudan had changed over the years. Leaving the conversation confused, I decided to dig a little deeper.

In mid-1970s Saudi Arabia, a religious police was established as the clergy were given power over public space. In Sudan, President Jaafar Nimeiry, who had come to power in 1969 in a leftist coup, would end up imposing Sharia law by 1983. In the subsequent years, with the formation of a Sudanese religious police in the early 90s, the spaces of relative freedom in which my mother had once dressed had closed up. Religious police currently operate in various forms in many Muslim countries, from Nigeria to Somalia to Afghanistan. What might have started as the enforcement of simple modest dressing has become, in extreme cases, a full burqa with face covering. In all kinds of societies, rulers have worked out that religious law is a useful tool for exercising control.

Speaking to my mother about this, I could hear the whirring sound in her voice as I asked her about her own choices. She told me about her belief in modesty, that the liberal way of dressing was a thing of the past. She clearly explained how women with government jobs couldn’t come to work if they weren’t wearing a hijab. As she spoke, I began to understand how attitudes change over time, progress was not a one-way street, and how much “rules” and cultures can vary. There’s such a fine line between modesty being the expression of a personal connection to faith and it being a result of patriarchy.

People at a protest demanding the return of civilian rule in Khartoum, Sudan, September 2022. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

What happened to people such as me was that the repression taught to our mothers was, in turn, passed down to us. But this intergenerational inheritance is coming apart, not least because of social media.

In recent years, social media has created space for women to form positive communities. Fashion has become more accepting of modest clothing. I saw it play out in front of my eyes as my peers experimented with different prints and designs on their hijab, scarves and hats, taking joy in creating original looks. Designers now have hijabi women walking at fashion shows and sportswear brands catering to modest attire. Though the west continues to see the hijab as another form of oppression, it’s more complex for those who actually wear it.

What women in Iran are fighting for shouldn’t be downplayed into a conversation about the enforcement of the hijab. It’s in fact a much larger conversation about the generational brainwashing that has occurred at the hands of Islamic fundamentalist men who want to use religion to impose order. So, while Iranian women are fighting for their own sovereignty, I believe they are also fighting for the sovereignty of all women. We owe it to ourselves and to our mothers. To remind them of a past that once existed where they were free to make their own decisions. And we owe it to ourselves to make sure that the next generation won’t be prisoners of decisions made on our behalf.

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I’m a Sudanese woman – the protests in Iran mirror my own tangled history with clothing and freedom | Basma Khalifa

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