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Nigeria’s kidnapped girls and Iran’s brave women

by Marc Champion

Bloomberg

What does the kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls by Nigerian Islamists have in common with an inspiring Facebook campaign in which Iranian women display themselves without headscarves?

Nothing directly, but both go to the heart of what’s wrong with religious zealots and why ultimately they must fail: Their attempt to deprive women choice ultimately cannot coexist with rising levels of education.

The Iranian Facebook page is extraordinarily touching. It was begun by a journalist who posted a photograph of herself without a headscarf. She invited other Iranian women to share their own “stealthy freedom” moments. And so they did, posting pictures in which they defied the law to take off their headscarves, often in remote areas where they couldn’t be seen. The page now has 150,000 likes.

I can’t read the original comments, in Persian, of those who posted photographs — an act of some bravery, given that the women can be tracked by Iran’s morality police. Judging by the translations reported in English-language media and a random selection loaded into Google Translate, they aren’t talking about religion. They are demanding the freedom to choose for themselves what they wear, or don’t, on their heads.

In Turkey, an opposite but similar debate raged several years ago, as the ruling Justice and Development Party — whose leadership consists of former Islamists — sought to eliminate restrictions that the previous secularist regime had imposed on women, banning them from wearing headscarves at universities or in government jobs. The froth of that debate between conservatives and secularists was always about religion, or the rescue of girls from traditional parents. The women and girls involved, however, invariably said they just wanted the right to choose.

In Iran, conservative media have attacked the Facebook page as irreligious and anti-revolutionary. Even President Hassan Rouhani, arguing against any crackdown against women without headscarves as he reached out to moderates last year, remained trapped within the fundamentalist terms of the debate: “In my view, many women in our society who do not respect our hijab laws are virtuous,” he said. That is true, only the women aren’t debating their virtue, which no doubt they see as their own business.

Both Turkey and Iran have seen a big expansion in the number of women going to university in recent years. The demand by women to decide their own clothes and fates will surely grow in tandem. How can you train women as surgeons, with the power to make life or death decisions, and at the same time demand they accept that they can’t be trusted to choose what they wear on their heads?

The answer of the kidnappers in Nigeria is to stop education. They said they took the 300 girls because they had no business going to school. A recently released video of about half the schoolgirls showed them wearing head coverings and cloaks. Some were Christian but said they had now converted to Islam. “We have indeed liberated them,” said Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, according to the BBC.

I doubt he asked them. But he did propose trading them for other prisoners.

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times and the editor in chief of the Moscow Times. He is based in London.