In 2008, when my family and I traveled to Iran for my brother-in-law’s wedding, the day after we left Tehran to visit my sister-in-law and her family in Isfahan, the Iranian morality police drove a paddy wagon into Tajrish, a part of Iran’s capital where we’d been shopping in the bazaar the day before, and started rounding up women whose clothing did not appropriately conceal their bodies from public view. A few days earlier, while sitting with my brother-in-law and his wife in an outdoor cafe, I had watched my wife nervously sit up straight and carefully adjust her hejab when a member of the morality police walked in. My brother-in-law’s wife, on the other hand, sat calmly and did nothing to adjust hers. Later, my wife explained the difference in their reactions. Hers was a reflex from growing up in Iran during the years after the 1979 revolution, when even the slightest deviation from what was considered appropriate dress could earn a woman severe beating, arrest, and even worst. My brother-in-law’s wife, on the other hand, had not only grown up in an Iran that had seen periods of relative freedom when it came to women’s clothing, but she herself was part of a generation that has been increasingly defiant when it comes to the government telling women how they should dress. She simply did not fear the officer in the same way that my wife had been conditioned to do.
That women’s bodies and sexualities are contested territory in Iran, as they are in male dominant cultures all over the world, is no surprise, nor should it be a surprise that the constraints placed on women’s dress in Iran is the form of government oppression there1 most easily latched onto by the popular imagination in the West. Not only does the fact that it’s women whose lives are limited in this way play into western fantasies of rescuing the exotic woman-in-distress from her primitive and despotic, male-dominated family/country/culture, but also, given the high value we place on individual expression and freedom of choice, the limiting of something we see as so fundamentally personal as the decision of what to wear on any given day can seem to us to strike at the very heart of what it means to be alive. That the women of Iran might not see it this way is something too few of us take into consideration.
In the west, or certainly in the United States, one dominant image of the struggle for women’s rights in Iran is something like this one, in which a young woman is being arrested for not properly covering her hair.
The problem with this image, though, is not that it is inaccurate; the problem is that it is incomplete. Not only does it leave out all the other concerns that women’s rights advocates in Iran attempt to address, but it also elides the full complexity of Iranian women’s response, on their own terms and within the context of their own culture, to the dress code that their government has given the force of law. In September of this year, Azadeh Moaveni published an article on IranWire called The Metamorphosis of a Cloak that illustrates what I am talking about. The focus of Moaveni’s article is the spring manteau collection by designer Farnaz Abdoli. The manteau–from French, meaning a loose coat, cloak, or robe–is one of the two choices available to Iranian women when it comes to outerwear, the other one being the chador, which is what the woman on the right is wearing in the picture above. Like the hejab, which has in Iran a far more complex political and cultural/religious history than one might expect, the manteau is not without political significance. As Moaveni writes:
If clothes are a marker of how a society experiences change, then the rise of the manteau reflects just how dramatically Iranian society and values have been transformed in the past forty years. Until the 1970s, women in Iran dressed with great variation and mainly according to social background: rural women and those in smaller cities favoured chador chit or floral chador, less religious urban middle-to-upper class women wore Westernized clothing, while the black chador was mainly worn in big cities by traditional and ultra-orthodox religious women.
The manteau only emerged in the 1970s as a political statement by young, educated women, many devoted to leftist or modern Islamist ideals. But after 1979, when the revolutionary government sought to impose black chador on all Iranian women, the meaning of both chador and manteau were transformed. In the early 1980s, a spectrum of women who might have looked nothing like each other on a pre-1979 street began to embrace the manteau as a compromise.
Even for religious women, says the scholar Ziba Mir-Hosseini, the chador declined as the superior form of hejab…as society began to equate black chador with extremist-political-state Islam…. “The chador’s message became hezbollahi [associated with the government], and the manteau’s message became modern, reformist Islam.”
Here are a few examples of Abdoli’s designs; the photo at the top of this post is another one. (All the pictures are from Moaveni’s article.) Click on the images to see them at full size:
I’d wager that all of the women in these pictures would have been arrested on that day in Tajrish in 2008, something that Abdoli herself acknowledges when she says, “These aren’t clothes for going to the supermarket or the vegetable seller or taking a walk in Park Mellat.” In other words, or at least this is how I understand it, even though Abdoli’s designs are, as Moaveni puts it, “technically compatible with state dress codes, [being] long and flowing with proper sleeves,” they are not modest enough to be acceptable in public.
My own immediate, emotional, very Western, very American response to these pictures and the politics they represent is that Abdoli’s designs are, at best, an accommodation with tyranny, that they perpetuate tyranny by giving it a beautiful, and even sexy, veneer, and that if Iranian women really want freedom, then the only valid approach is to put an end to that tyranny. There are, no doubt, Iranian women, and also men, who agree with me at least in principle, especially with the part about ending tyranny (and I am thinking here of people who live in Iran, not Iranians who live elsewhere). Nonetheless, my response fails to account for the fact that neither the manteau nor the hejab–nor, for that matter, the entire concept of women covering themselves in this way for the sake of a spiritually motivated modesty–are part of my cultural, historical, spiritual, or political vocabulary. Implicit in my response, in other words, is the assumption, the expectation, that my triply vicarious understanding of this issue–I am neither Muslim, nor Iranian, nor a woman–has a validity that is equal to, if not greater than, the understanding of the Iranians themselves. That assumption, that expectation, no matter how nobly motivated, is no less arrogant in its presumptuousness than those who choose to see Iran only through the very narrow lens of images like the one of the woman being arrested above.
I’m not suggesting that the only appropriate stance for someone like me to take is one of pure, live-and-let-live cultural relativism. I think it is unambiguously wrong for the government of Iran to impose a religious dress code–and sanctions for violating that code–on its people, many of whom do not share the government’s understanding of their religion; and I think it’s important to focus on the ways that code impacts women far more than men, who are also enjoined to dress modestly, though the Iranian government seems to focus more on men’s haircuts than anything else. As well, I think it’s important for people in the west not to be silent about issues like this. It’s just that I think it is more important for us first to listen to what the people who live this issue on a daily basis have to say, and not just those whose ideas–at least on the surface–agree most strongly with ours, but also those with whom we disagree or who have perspectives that are new to us. Having listened like that, we can begin to claim an informed perspective, and that perspective (hopefully) will teach us the humility of knowing that we are not now and will never be any kind of ultimate authority on this subject. The arrogance of assuming that we can be is what I will discuss in Part 2.
- Just to be clear, I am not saying that Islam oppresses women by requiring them to cover themselves; whether or not that is the case is a debate for Muslims to have within their own communities and on their own terms. Rather, I am saying that the imposition of this dress code by Iran’s government on all women in Iran, under threat of punishment, is a form of oppression. [↩]