In Iran and India, girls' protests bear a strong message for fathers

Raising daughters should mean listening to what they have to say, and wanting them to be happy

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It is a sobering moment for fathers from the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent. On the streets of Iran, young women are protesting against the strict dress code of the country’s theocratic government – one that is undoubtedly attempting to be paternalistic in nature, and is itself run largely by a collection of fathers – and its brutal crackdown against dissenters.

Several weeks ago, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, died at the hands of Iran’s morality police for wearing her hijab “improperly”. Since then, tens of thousands of young women – their fathers’ daughters – have come out on the streets of every major city, standing up for their rights and freedom of choice. They have done so while defying a widespread crackdown on the internet and violent repression by the police. Many have been killed. These protests – the largest, leaderless, spontaneous protests the country has seen in recent times – have become a sort of cultural touchstone, a vast, sweeping movement that speaks of a wider discontent, especially on the part of young women, with a repressive regime.

Conversely, in Karnataka state in my home country of India earlier this year, the government authorised colleges to ban the wearing of hijabs by young Muslim women on college campuses. In March, the Karnataka High Court upheld the state government order. Several petitioners challenged the high court order in the Supreme Court, India’s highest court. And the Supreme Court, having heard the matter, reserved its order, and is likely to pronounce its verdict soon.

In Iran, thousands of daughters are protesting about being forced to wear the hijab in a particular way – or, indeed, at all. In Karnataka, they are protesting against not being allowed to wear the hijab. On the face of it, these are two diametrically opposite issues.

But to fathers, in both instances the message heard from our daughters ought to be one and the same. They are telling us of an assault on their freedom of choice and expression – of, fundamentally, an attack on the rights, dignity and agency of young women.

A little girl sits next to her father during the Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran last month. EPA
It is a sobering moment for fathers from the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent

As the father of a 21-year-old woman (she is only a year younger than Mahsa Amini, and I shudder as I realise this), I cannot emphasise this enough. I have learnt, and have previously written in a book I published, of how support, unstinted and always, must be a father’s overriding parenting principle while bringing up a daughter.

And I have seen the difference it makes.

I recall the day my wife and I were with our daughter on her first day of her eleventh year of school. We had moved to a new city, and, at the age of 16, she was compelled to adjust to a new environment, new teachers, new fellow students, at a new school. A tricky thing at a tricky age.

We were asked to write a message for our child on the whiteboard in the classroom. Among all the parents, my message was the briefest. “Be happy”, I wrote.

Despite the brevity, I am privileged that my daughter eventually came to understand.

There were, after all, those occasions when she had not done as well as she had expected in school examinations. She would skulk around the house, at a low ebb, flagellating herself, wondering why things had gone wrong, how they could be better again, and what she must do to make that happen.

I would repeatedly paraphrase to her the American boxer Joe Louis. “If you have done the best you could with what you had, it is all right.” And it is.

Gradually, it began sinking in. I realised that when, in her final year of school, not having done as well as she thought she would in her strongest subject, she quoted this – consciously or unconsciously; how, it did not matter – back at me.

Students study in the playground area of a college in Bangalore in March, after an Indian court upheld a local ban on the hijab in classrooms. AFP

“I did the best I could with what I had,” she said. “What more could I have done?”

“Nothing more. Be happy. Get up and go again.”

She was not skulking around, she was not at a low ebb. She got up and went again. It was a chrysalis-to-butterfly moment.

Mahsa Amini is beyond her father’s help now. As are the other girls who have been killed honouring her memory. In one video from Iran, an elderly man is seen standing at a grave mourning them, and he urges parents to support their children.

He makes a vital point. These young women need the unwavering support of their parents, and especially their fathers. The trope of authoritarian patriarchy runs through the sequence of events in both Karnataka and Iran. In such circumstances, the support for young women from their fathers – the person seen as the family patriarch, for better or for worse – sends out a powerful, emphatic message. It is as much a message for the daughters (I am on your side, you don’t need to worry) as for the oppressors (Not everyone is like you; you will, one day, find yourself on the wrong side of history).

As fathers, in whichever part of the world we may be in, however tough the situation, it is our duty to support our daughters. The reward? The pride in watching them put in all their effort to unshackle themselves from imposed notions of who they should be, and become who they are. The pleasure in helping them be happy.

There have been protests around the world, such as this one in Berlin, following the death of Mahsa Amini. AP Photo
Published: October 20, 2022, 4:00 AM