Iran and women: Can appearances deceive?
America’s sworn enemy which brands the United States the “Great Satan” is the only country in the Middle East where citizens went onto the streets with a candlelit vigil in a spontaneous show of sympathy immediately after 9/11.
The Islamic Republic, the embodiment of radical Islam in the eyes of many a Western politician, is also the place where the most popular public holidays hark back to Iran’s Zoroastrian past that pre-dates Islam.
And then there are the women in their veils. Many you can hardly see, shrouded in their black chadors — a word which literally means ‘tent’ — holding the edges of the cloth in their teeth to keep it tightly bound round their faces.
Look elsewhere, particularly in the upscale parts of town, and the veil hardly covers their heads, pushed back behind bouffant hair styles, more Yves Saint Laurent than Islam. “Bad hejab” it’s called. (Persian and English share the same word for “bad”, perhaps testimony to ancient linguistic roots.)
But the omnipresent veil tells you little. Whether all enveloping or pushed back on the head to the limits – and beyond – of acceptability, it gives no indication of where women see their place in society or their political view.
I first travelled to Iran in 1999. Politically a very different time. Pro-reform politicians had swept to power. Change was in the air although, as it happened, it didn’t last long.
On that occasion, I was travelling with a U.S.-Iranian friend who was touring the Islamic Republic as part of some research. The trip took us to Ardebil, a city in northwest Iran.
We had met a kindly man on the flight. He insisted we stay with his family. We declined many times, but this was not traditional “taarof”, the Iranian tradition of making an offer that the recipient is expected to decline. He meant it. And we agreed.
We were having lunch. The wife with her neat veil served the food, with her daughter’s help. The men were seated. The women chose to eat in a separate room. We tucked in. Then, after finishing, the wife and daughter joined us for tea. We chatted.
So what has the revolution achieved? my friend asked, speaking 20 years after the Islamic Republic emerged.
The husband answered, well, it’s been tough, we still have many problems, but we have made progress. He listed the advances. His wife was listening with increasing agitation.
Finally, unable to hold herself back, she blurted out her response. In short, he was talking nonsense, she said. She laid into his account with vigour – in front of the visitors – perfectly confident that her opposing and less rosy view of Iran’s progress was just as valid.
That’s what struck me. It’s not what the wife said that mattered. It was her assertiveness. There seemed no inequality in that room. Eating apart and wearing a headscarf were just tradition or polite custom, it was not a statement about her position. Her words that spoke volumes.
That scene in 1999 is just as relevant today. But the political landscape is different. Reformists are no longer in government pushing for social and political change. Hardliners hold the reins of power. And different images now come to the fore: those of women battling to change their status in the eyes
of the law.
It is the era after Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Peace prize in 2003 for her work on democracy and human rights. She was the first Iranian, first Shi’ite Muslim and first Muslim woman to be so honoured.
She and other activists are fighting for the same divorce rights as men, to have their witness given the same weight in court and seeking other changes that will put them on a par. They pay a heavy price.
Suspended jail sentences for their actions or even time inside are not uncommon . The Iranian authorities deny discrimination and say they are simply implementing Islamic sharia law.
What women are fighting for highlights their aspirations but their determination tells you more about where they see themselves, as equals, even if the activists number just a small
minority in this country of 70 million.
The Islamic Republic often seems as intricate and complex as the mosaic tiling on its mosques. It’s difficult to categorise. Veiled women, whether covering up for conviction or because the law demands it, suggest appearances can indeed deceive.