Censoring Clothing for Young Women in the United States and Beyond

Vidah Movahed

In protest to the obligatory hijab law, six Iranian women walked into public and removed their head covering, waving it for all to see. They followed protests by one woman who, on December 27th, was arrested for removing her hijab in solidarity with the White Wednesday campaign. Creator of the campaign, exiled Iranian journalist and activist in the United States, Masih Alinejad, reached out to Iranian women through social media via a website entitled My Stealthy Freedom; the website posts images of women consensually removing their head scarves, with a demand for an end to the compulsory scarf law.

Though relatively small in the number, the pop-up protests seem to be indicative of the angry censoring of both women and men’s personal conduct through Islamic laws. One of the protestors explained her decision to remove her scarf, “I’m tired of our government telling me what to do with my body.”

Lawyer and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh added, “It’s obvious that some women want to decide for themselves what to wear.” It seems that the public response to the Monday protest was not particularly negative. People applauded her, taxi drivers and older women took her picture while the police either did not see her or chose not to intervene.

Of the six women who protested on Monday, one was arrested for removing her head scarf. During the protest, some women waved white scarves, a symbol of Alinejad’s campaign. Another woman stood in the same spot where, on December 27th, Vida Movahedi was arrested for removing her head scarf; the protester was wearing a green ribbon, a likely supporter of the oppositional Green Movement.

While discriminatory practices in divorce and inheritance laws poses major problems for individual women, the head scarf is a highly public symbol, imposed upon the population by Iran’s clerical leaders; only they can decide the appropriate clothing that people can wear, what music they can listen to and which movies and televisions they can see. The laws affect both men and women. For example, men are unable to wear shorts in public. Both men and women have been arrested for violating the conduct laws. Under current president Hassan Rouhani, the morality police have largely been removed from the streets.

The protests are not a protest of the hijab, but a protest against the demands of controlling a woman’s body and the choices in what she decides to wear in the public sphere. They are protests against a government that censors women’s choices and wants to manage what they wear and where they chose to express themselves.

That phenomenon is not exclusive to Iran. The United States censors and disciplines girls deemed to have made `inappropriate’ clothing choices. Girls have been disciplined for showing their collarbone and shoulders. African American students have been penalized for wearing their hair in braids with extensions and have been suspended until they change their hairstyle or barred from prom, as happened to Mya and Deanna Cook last year in Malden, Massachusetts.

These cases and laws will continue to garner the appropriate outrage, because it is not a case of oppressive measures by outside countries for religion that has been negatively generalized. They are laws designed by men to make women and girls feel ashamed of themselves and regulate their clothing and, above all, their bodies.

Mya and Deanna Cook


(Photo Credit 1: New Yorker / Abaca Press) (Photo Credit 2: Buzzfeed)

The global AIDS war on young women … and especially girls

A global war is being waged against girls and young women. From 2005 to 2012, public policy and popular determination resulted in a global dip of 30% in AIDS-related deaths. In that same period, 10- to 19-year-olds suffered a 50% increase in AIDS-related deaths. The epicenter of this is sub-Saharan Africa, and the heart of that epicenter is comprised of girls and young women. How did this happen?

From global agencies (and their donors) to national governments to local practitioners, everyone refused to respect the arc of peoples’ lives. They refused to think of the number of children born HIV+.  Many of those children never received antiretroviral treatment, or ART. Of those who did, few received adequate, or any kind, of follow-up or support. Everyone refused to plan child- and adolescent-friendly services. Children were left to fend for themselves, often without the knowledge or information of their status.

And so the children have died in increasing numbers… especially girls: “Adolescents and young people remain extremely vulnerable to acquiring HIV infection, especially girls who live in settings with a generalized HIV epidemic or who are members of populations at high risk for HIV acquisition or transmission.”

Especially girls. Consider some numbers:

92% of the world’s pregnant women with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa. 59% of those women received ART or prophylaxis during pregnancy and delivery.

A recent survey indicates that only 15% of young women in sub-Saharan Africa know their status. Put more directly, 85% have no idea.

Young women are three times more likely than young men to become infected.

The situation is actually worse, because there are well-known successful youth-centered programs and projects. They’re out there, and there not difficult to find, from South Africa to Botswana to Mozambique to Jamaica and beyond, successful programs begin with respect for the individual and collective autonomies of children, adolescents, and youth, and they work to better understand the particular operations of genders in their communities.

One study released this week indicates, “Child support grant keeps sugar daddies away.” Or, as the researchers put it, “Our findings provide evidence that government-administered cash transfers are associated with reduced incidence in the past year and lower prevalence of risky sexual behaviours in adolescent girls, but no consistent associations for boys… Child-focused cash transfers target specific—rather than all—risky sexual behaviours, and that a possible mechanism of change might be interruption of risks driven by economic necessity. This finding is especially important because transactional and age-disparate relationships are linked and major vectors of HIV infection, via power inequalities and higher infection rates in older male partners and male partners who provide financial support.”

Do you need a study to tell you that most young girls engaging in sex with older, and wealthier, men are acting “transactionally”? Common sense or conversations with those young girls would suggest as much.

National governments and their international partners have steadfastly refused to have those conversations. They refused to look at girls and young women with anything like a gender lens, with anything like respect. And so the death tolls mount, and the piles of corpses are overwhelmingly women and girls. Girls and young women are not “falling through gaps in HIV services”. They were not forgotten or overlooked. They have been positioned, targeted, by agencies and nation-States that give lip service to women’s rights while colluding in the mass deaths of young women … and especially girls.


(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Elmer Martinez / AFP / Getty Images)