Iran and women: Can appearances deceive?

August 8, 2008

iranian-women-walk-on-the-beach.jpg Iran is a land that cannot be easily pigeon-holed.

 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.


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Its funny how westerners obssess over clothing as an indicator of social equality, rather than things like litarcy or access to healthcare. Since the Islamic revolution, Iranian women are better educated and more likely to be in the workplace than ever before. The situation has particularly improved for rural women. Iran has female vice presidents and members of parliament.

Posted by hass | Report as abusive

It always feels great to hear something (anything) positive said about the Iranian people, from a non-Iranian. Is the main-stream media waking up from its slumber, or at least one paper at a time… one little article at a time? Please do your ‘thing’ to wake them up. A whole nation will love you for that… The whole world will benefit from the ensuing peace, that each of you helped wage… If only the world knew the extent of love and admiration that the Iranian people behold for the ‘West’, particularly for Americans! The only danger of getting to know your “enemy” is that you just might like them enough to realize that they are really not the enemy at all…
Let’s build bridges, not bombs… We will all feel great for having done that…

Thank you Reuters!

Posted by Azita | Report as abusive

To Hass: You may fool some people but not all:
man can marry 4 women permanently, and unlimited part time marrage, woman cannot have custody of children in case of divorce, woman’s value in court as a witness considered as a half of man, woman cannot apply for passport without man’s approval, man can divorce woman with a turn of a dime, but vise versa, man’s children from a foriegn woman is Iranain, but Iranian woman’s child from a foriegn man is not Iranain!!
When stonning, man burried up to chest in sand and woman up to neck!! a girl is an adult at age 9 and boy is man at age 15, the list can go on and on, NOW, you call this equality, SHAME ON YOU.
“…Woman are better educated…” poor creatures have nothing else to do, they are even forbidden to go to stadium and watch games, they are separated even in “special women park”, they are beaten, jailed if a few strand of hair sticking out of their scarves. If they are forced to stay home and rot, then better get out and earn better education. “Ian has female V.P and member of parliament” name me a few VP and name me more than 3 parliamentarian women! , one of them recently said, ” If we hang a dozen of these women in public because of their hair sticking out, I guarantee you there will no more sinners..”. If you call these women representative of Iranian women, then again shame on you.

Posted by babak pirouzia | Report as abusive

to hass:

no doubt you are part of the islamic republic’s online propaganda machine

“obssess over clothing as an indicator of social equality”
it is an indication of inequality as it is forced! just think of how many women in Iran would take of their scarfs if hejab was not obligatory.

“Since the Islamic revolution, Iranian women are better educated and more likely to be in the workplace than ever before.”

educated! you mean sexually abused by the heads of the universities they attend (a female student was forced into sex by the dean of zanjan university 3 months ago! don’t you read the news, oh sorry, forgot, IRNA did not do any report on it! the video was made public by the students on utube! )

if by workspace you mean “whorehouses of dubai” you are 100% correct.

“The situation has particularly improved for rural women.”


Posted by Roozbeh | Report as abusive


I hardly think examples of sexual harassment and rape is a criticism you can only apply to Iran. Do you read the rape statistics of other countries? Or are you only interested in that of Iran’s because it fits your political agenda?

Indeed, you’ll find Iranian universities have a higher percentage of women than men ; and women are increasingly dominating the educated class in the country. Although I don’t agree with enforcing an act of worship, like the hijab, (contested or not), I hardly think it’s any different from the Western (and non-Western for that matter) societies saturated in capitalist consumer culture demanding women dress in a certain way, behave in a certain way. I find that just as coercive, if not more. In fact, the objectification of women, where they’re being produced and reproduced in accordance with the market is far more detrimental to women.

Posted by Anti-Flag | Report as abusive

Let’s hope regime change is coming soon in Iran.

Posted by Al | Report as abusive

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