Peace Science Digest

Right to Choice and the Hijab: Call for International Legal Reform

By Raghavi Purimetla and Amukta Sistla

This essay was selected for publication as part of the War Prevention Initiative’s Feminist Foreign Policy Essay “Un-Contest”. 

On September 16, 2022, Iran woke up to massive protests following the death of a 22-year-old woman by the name Mahsa Amini. She died three days after her arrest by the morality police of Iran.[1] Amini and a few other women were arrested for wearing the hijab inappropriately, which, according to the state of Iran, is a severely punishable offense. Ever since the imposition of the hijab in 2018, Iranians have protested against it. This time, the protests have been intense and, as of December 6, 2022, 448 people had been killed by Iranian security forces.[2]

On December 31, 2021, six Muslim girls were barred from entering their classrooms for wearing the hijab in the South Indian state of Karnataka. In protest, the girls sat outside their classrooms and refused to enter without wearing the hijab. The right-wing political environment in Karnataka added fuel to the fire, spreading similar confrontations to other parts of the state. Meanwhile, the resistance of Muslim girls to uphold their choice also strengthened. Right-wing groups targeted the girls who were protesting. They were subjected to ostracism by neighbours, friends, and school teachers; their addresses and phone numbers were leaked. The situation reached such a level that death threats were issued against the girls who wanted to wear the hijab.[3]

“Right to choice” manifests differently in these scenarios. In the case of Iran, women chose to break free from the shackles of religious traditions. In the case of India, women chose to assert their religious identity. The stories are different in their underlying cause and context yet are similar in terms of the control exerted over the lives of women. Discriminatory policies on the hijab result in the infringement of the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, human dignity, and freedom of religion. In India, the restrictions also curtailed the right to education for the young girls who were on the verge of completing graduate education and carried hopes of supporting their lower- to middle-income families through employment. In this case, the girls have faced double deprivation due not only to their gender but also to their religion.

The rights of women are always subject to the prevailing politico-religious environment of any country. In both the contexts discussed here, women are subject to structural and direct violence perpetrated by the state. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the violence is justified by citing religious texts or Shariya laws.[4] Similarly, current right-wing politics in democratic India continues to perpetuate violence against minority women in the name of secularism.[5] The states of Iran and India have actively suppressed women’s right to choice and freedom of dissent.

When states fail at their duty to protect women’s rights, what is the alternative? The current international law and foreign policy efforts pertaining to women’s rights are inadequate in scope and action. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948) and the International Covenants on Human Rights (adopted in 1966) addressed protection and promotion of women’s human rights, they failed to address discrimination and violence against women (VAW) in a comprehensive manner. This gap made way for the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, a watershed law in defining rights and freedom for women that declared gender discrimination and VAW as violations of human rights.[6] However, it currently falls short in addressing the emerging issues of gender discrimination because it lacks a comprehensive definition of violence. In particular, it fails to recognize structural violence, such as violations of the right to choice mentioned above, and strategies to deal with it.

Further, Iran is not a signatory to CEDAW. And while India ratified the treaty, the state machinery has not addressed the hijab issue as a form of VAW. This clearly shows that CEDAW has little impact on how states deal with issues of gender especially at a local level. This domestic-level indifference can be addressed through international efforts.

Regardless of the nature of national political contexts, human rights is a language that cuts across borders. At its core, a feminist foreign policy (FFP) is about fulfilling human rights and ensuring human dignity through strategic action and policy reform. FFP is an alternative approach to achieve gender equality. Though India and Iran have ratified the UNSC’s Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security during the early 2000s, neither of the states have formulated and presented National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security in their respective parliaments. By contrast, states like Sweden, Canada, France, Chile, and so on that have adopted FFP have Nation Action Plans that are being implemented.[7] As this example illustrates, at times when economic and national security issues dominate bilateral or multinational talks, adopting a FFP is essential to ensure a gender perspective in domestic and external policies.

In the case of the contrasting contexts in Iran and India, FFP could elicit international consensus on a unified political framework to formulate gender-sensitive policies including women’s right to choice, which could then be applied elsewhere. Apart from providing this framework, the adoption of a FFP on the part of these two specific states would help in achieving better coordination among governments in policy formulation and mutual exchange of strategies to address the issues that are as complex as the right to choice. In volatile political environments, it is essential to learn from one other’s mistakes in order to move in the direction of gender equality. Another critically important characteristic of FFP is that, once it is adopted by a nation in an international forum, it makes the actions of the government more visible, which in turn enhances accountability and transparency.[8]

The states or international institutions adopting a FFP would help to usher in new women’s rights treaties—such as the campaign to adopt the Every Woman Treaty (EWT),[9] which incorporates a FFP framework. Building on CEDAW, the EWT is calling for a stand-alone global treaty that postulates a comprehensive framework called the “whole hand approach”[10] to deal with VAW. The five-point framework calls, firstly, for reforming age-old legal systems like those based on religious tenets. Secondly, it asks for investment in training multiple stakeholders and respondents, and thirdly, in implementing prevention education campaigns. Fourthly, by holding states accountable for violence, it advocates for development of support systems and services for survivors of violence. Finally, the treaty focuses on the need to increase funding to prevent violence against women. The treaty also proposes a continuous process of research to stay in pace with the changing world and its ever-evolving problems.

What happened in India and Iran with respect to the hijab is an issue of severe discrimination against women. But these states have not been held accountable under CEDAW. One of the merits of EWT is that, although, like CEDAW, it calls for a treaty that is legally binding, it also encompasses a holistic framework that allows for effective monitoring and accountability while acknowledging contextual differences. Also, this treaty commits itself to supporting frontline activists, like the protestors in Iran, in their fight against the injustice. When states fail in this regard, which happens to be the case with India and Iran, the treaty would act as a redressal system for citizens to appeal to the international system of justice, along with pressurising member states to act on the concerned issue.

Once these values and mechanisms are successfully put into action, one can hope to see the women of Iran enjoying a day out without worrying about their hijabs and the Muslim women in India walking freely into classrooms without having their hijabs stripped off them.

Raghavi Purimetla and Amukta Sistla are Research Associates at a not-for-profit research organisation based in India called Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. They are currently engaged with a project on gender violence in public spaces. They  can be reached at and


BBC News. “Iran Protests: BBC Identifies Many More People Killed in Demonstrations after MahsaAmini’s Death.” BBC, December 6, 2022.

“Every Woman Treaty: Home,” Every Women Treaty, accessed March 3, 2023,

“Feminist Foreign Policies: An Introduction.” UN Women.Accessed March 3, 2023.

Human Rights Watch. “The Iranian Legal Framework and International Law.” Accessed November 14, 2022.

People’s Union of Civil Liberties Karnataka. “Impact of Hijab Ban in Karnataka’s Educational Institutions: An Interim Study Report. People’s Union for Civil Liberties Karnataka, September 2022.

Sen, Amartya.The Argumentative Indian. Chennai, India: MacMillan, 2006.

“The Whole Hand Framework.” Every Woman Treaty.Accessed March, 2023.

UN Women. “Short History of CEDAW Convention.” Accessed March, 3, 2023.

Wintour, Patrick. “Iran’s Security Forces Reportedly Open Fire as Thousands Mourn MahsaAmini.” The Guardian, October 26, 2022.

[1]BBC News, “Iran Protests: BBC Identifies Many More People Killed in Demonstrations after MahsaAmini’sDeath,”BBC, December 6, 2022,

[2]Patrick Wintour, “Iran’s Security Forces Reportedly Open Fire as Thousands Mourn MahsaAmini,” The Guardian, October 26, 2022,

[3] People’s Union of Civil Liberties Karnataka, “Impact of Hijab Ban in Karnataka’s Educational Institutions: An Interim Study Report,” People’s Union for Civil LibertiesKarnataka, September 2022,

[4]Human Rights Watch, “The Iranian Legal Framework and International Law,”accessed November 14, 2022,

[5]The nature of secularism in India is such that itestablishesneutrality among all religions, not the prohibition of religion. Hence, even under the argument of secularism, banning the hijab is unlawful.Amartya Sen,The Argumentative Indian (Chennai, India: MacMillan, 2006),

[6]UN Women, “Short History of CEDAW Convention,”accessed March, 3, 2023,

[7]“Feminist Foreign Policies: An Introduction,”UN Women,accessed March 3, 2023,

[8]“Feminist Foreign Policies: An Introduction,”UN Women,accessed March 3, 2023,

[9]“Every Woman Treaty: Home,”Every Women Treaty,accessed March 3, 2023,

[10]“The Whole Hand Framework,”Every Woman Treaty, accessed March, 2023,

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