Behind the Veil

Westerners see Iran's mandatory veil as a symbol of repression. But under cover of the hejab, Islamic women have gained more freedom than they—or the fundamentalists—could have imagined.

Tehran, summer 1998 -- The tickets had been sold weeks in advance and the line for the show had formed by mid-afternoon. For the women in sequined gowns and elegant cocktail dresses who had gathered at a private school run by the Italian Consulate, the night brought a sense of urgency mixed with disbelief. They were about to attend the first public performance of contemporary dance to be permitted in Iran in two decades.

The show, billed as "A Performance of Harmonious Motions," was to take place in an abandoned basement turned into a makeshift concert hall. Flowers and candles had been placed in strategic locations, and the seating consisted of crudely numbered wooden chairs. The excitement in the crowd was palpable. An occasion where women can gather without the mandatory veil, or hejab, is a rarity in Iran, and the room was abuzz with gossip about the jewelry and accoutrements worn by each of the guests.

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What made the night much more than merely a social event was the name at the top of the bill: Farzaneh Kaboli. A famous ballerina in prerevolutionary times, she had been banned from the stage since the 1979 uprising that brought an Islamic government to power. Unlike many professionals who had sought better conditions overseas, however, Kaboli had opted to stay, opening her house-cum- studio to a group of devoted students and surreptitiously preparing them for an evening like this. It had been 22 years since her last public performance.

The last dance on the program was a contemporary piece set to New Age music and performed by the 45-year-old Miss Farzaneh, as she is known to her followers. Its title, "A Lone Woman Bracing for the Winter's Cold," was instantly recognized as a reference to a poem by Forugh Farokhzad, Iran's premier feminist poet, whose work had also been banned for years.

As Miss Farzaneh took her final bow, the audience went wild. After 10 minutes of nonstop applause, she announced, "Next time we will see you at Roudaki Hall!"

A contemporary dance show at Tehran's main concert venue -- now renamed Vahdat (Unity) Hall -- may be unlikely, even in the reformist climate of today's Iran. But Kaboli's performance did signal a dramatic shift from the days when an event like this would have been unthinkable. As recently as three years earlier, the show would almost certainly have been broken up by Islamic vigilantes; a generation ago, it would have been permitted, but only a few women from Iran's westernized elite could have attended. Tonight's audience, by contrast, consisted in large part of women from solidly conservative backgrounds -- women who, under cover of the Islamic Republic's strict code of conduct, have begun to reinvent their role in ways their mothers and grandmothers could not have imagined.

 

Two decades earlier, when Iran was in the throes of revolutionary upheaval, the streets of Tehran and other cities had been the scene of frequent clashes between the army and demonstrators clamoring for an end to the monarchy. In one day alone, 2.4 million people marched peacefully, demanding an end to the Shah's reign.

One of the striking features of these demonstrations was the presence of large contingents of women in chadors -- billowing black cloaks that enveloped the entire body except the face. Though it was common for women to wear the hejab, typically a loose overcoat and head scarf, the chador was the mark of women from strict Muslim families. Rarely allowed outside the home except in the company of male relatives, they had now taken to the streets, and soon even women who had previously gone unveiled donned the chador as a symbol of protest.

For 50 years, Iran's monarchy had been in conflict with the country's deeply conservative majority, especially when it came to a woman's place in society. Even as the government sought to impose Western standards and banish customs like the veil, religious fatwas (edicts) by the country's highest clerical authorities reinforced Islamic tradition. In practice, many women were relegated to the realm of house and kitchen, their lives controlled by fathers, brothers, and husbands.

It was the Ayatollah Khomeini -- a theological maverick whose positions on many social issues were far more complex than is generally understood in the West -- who first broke with the clerical practice of banishing women from public life. "To participate in the fight against the dictatorship," he said in a famous sermon to Muslim women in 1979, "is your religious duty. You must actively join the revolutionary struggle." The Islamic movement's ideal was the "New Muslim Woman" -- obedient, pious, and militant, a chador-clad warrior with a baby in one arm and a gun in the other.

For the small number of women who had been able to take advantage of the Shah's comparatively liberal policies, the Islamic victory brought painful new restrictions. Among the new government's top priorities was a policy of strict segregation between the sexes: Women were required to use a separate entrance on buses, partitions were erected in offices and university classrooms to minimize contact between males and females, and the veil became mandatory once more.

But for the majority of Iran's working- and middle-class women, the revolution also signaled new opportunities. The government called on them to vote, to learn to read and write, to join the mobilization in the war against Iraq, and generally to help defeat the revolution's enemies. Even as westernized women found themselves purged from government offices and universities, their jobs were filled by traditional Muslims no longer content to be docile mothers and housewives. Over the next two decades, the complex dynamics launched by the Islamic revolution would alter age-old patriarchal structures and gender politics -- and, ultimately, undermine the power of the conservatives who had set the changes in motion.

 

My own impressions of these momentous developments were formed quite early in life. Shortly after the Islamic victory, my parents took me to my favorite amusement park. We were stopped at the entrance by a stern-looking warden who told my mother to remove her lipstick, fix her veil, and put on thick black socks before we could gain entry. On the way back home, my father did his best to explain to an exasperated six-year-old why missing out on the rides was a price well worth paying for my mother's freedom of choice.

But if my mother -- who came from a profoundly conservative family yet often went without hejab before the revolution -- was able to avoid humiliation this time, she soon learned that the revolutionary dress code was here to stay. The Islamic authorities had set a strict standard for what constituted proper hejab: Nothing short of a baggy, ankle-length cape and a scarf that covered every last strand of hair was tolerated. Makeup was strictly forbidden, as was the use of any color but drab shades of gray and brown. In the revolutionaries' eyes, anything that made a woman look attractive was considered a vice because it distracted people from piousness and spirituality.

The task of keeping the streets vice-free fell on the "Guidance Teams," a kind of vice squad that roamed the streets in specially outfitted patrol cars. Two chador-clad women sat in the back, two armed men in the front. They had broad powers to punish wayward individuals. Women who violated the dress code could be fined, imprisoned, or even publicly flogged.

Fifty years earlier, when the father of the last Shah had briefly attempted to outlaw the use of the hejab in public, my grandmother had scurried along the streets in the shadow of walls to avoid being forced to remove her veil. Now my friends and I did the same, but for a very different reason: We feared that the fashion accessories we had seen on underground tapes of mtv shows -- a rolled-up pants cuff, a flash of striped socks -- would be spotted by the guardians of public morality. "Come back here," my mother would say as I tiptoed past her bedroom, a trace of pink gloss on my lips, to meet a girlfriend at a cafe. "Take that off. Or would you like to spend the night in jail?"

Today, the scenes I see on the streets of Tehran when I visit from my current home in the United States could hardly be more different. Though the veil is still obligatory, it is only a shadow of its old self. Gone are the floor-sweeping, monochromatic robes; many women simply flout the requisite hejab by wearing attractive, even cleavage-showing clothes to go with it. The veil has become a game, with rules that can be stretched as the occasion demands: In my work as a journalist, I may wear a full-length coat and tightly drawn scarf when interviewing a member of the clergy and switch to a cape, red dress, and high heels when heading to a social event. In Tehran's more fashionable neighborhoods, it is not uncommon to see a teenager engaged in a shouting match with a conservative zealot who has challenged her outfit. "Why are you looking at my body?" she will say. "As a proper Muslim, you should be looking the other way."

 

To feminists in the West, the veil epitomizes everything that is wrong with the Iranian revolution. But the hejab means different things to different people; it is simultaneously a symbol of domination and liberation, of piety and rebellion.

For Iranian men, the hejab has traditionally been a means of controlling their wives and daughters, of defending women's honor and protecting their chastity. Conservative Muslims have also seen it as a way of shielding men from temptation. Not long after the revolution, then-President Abolhassan Banisadr declared publicly, "There is a certain radiation emitted from women's hair that tends to induce men into lustful thoughts."

But for many Iranian women, the hejab has an entirely different meaning: It affords a convenient protection for their public lives. In a society where an unveiled female is seen as sexually available, most women would wear some kind of hejab outside their homes even without state coercion -- and many who have entered the workforce and the academy would simply return to their traditional roles rather than remove their veils.

In the late 1980s, the Iranian government launched a program to expand the reach of higher education through an extensive system of provincial universities. Women were allowed to seek degrees in everything from literature to engineering, and with hejab and segregation strictly enforced in the classrooms, conservative families saw no reason to prohibit their daughters and sisters from attending. By the late 1990s, more than half of Iran's university entrants were women -- a remarkable figure in a country where, just two decades earlier, 69 percent of women had been illiterate.

What the revolutionaries did not foresee was that these changes would soon gnaw at the very heart of their conservative base. Women who had found their way into education and professional careers with the aid of the revolution began to chafe at the standards set down for their behavior. In 1997, their dissatisfaction became a political force when a reformist cleric, Mohammad Khatami, announced his presidential candidacy.

Although the Islamic Republic's Council of Guardians allowed Khatami's campaign to proceed, the entire apparatus of the state was mobilized in support of the hard-line candidate. But on election day, 30 million Iranians -- many of them first-time voters, many of them female -- flocked to the polling booths, and Khatami won in a landslide. (He recently declared his candidacy for a second term and was expected to win this June's election easily.)

Though Iran's presidency is not a very powerful office, the mere fact that a reformer had captured the post signaled the end of an era. Within a year after Khatami's victory, the power of the vice squads had been greatly diminished; family law was changed to allow divorced women to gain custody of their children; reform newspapers flourished; and restrictions on film and other artistic productions were lifted. And while the last few years have brought a powerful backlash from conservatives -- more than 40 publications have been shuttered since 1998 -- the momentum for reform appears to be irreversible.

The feminist daily Zan, where I worked as a columnist, was founded by a woman of impeccable revolutionary pedigree -- Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of a former president. In an interview shortly before our paper was banned, she said she had launched Zan because "there are laws in this society that are wrapped in sacred guises but that after closer inspection prove to have no basis in the Qur'an or the Sharia."

One significant, if symbolic, victory for the reformers was the easing of restrictions on the color of girls' school uniforms -- a powerful signal to those of us who had grown up at a time when even black was considered too "chic" for school. The color green, a symbol of Islam, had come to be associated with the reform movement, and on the first anniversary of Khatami's election, tens of thousands of students showed up for school wearing green veils. The hejab had been politicized yet again -- but this time, young women had taken charge.

 

Tehran, winter 2000 -- "My name is Labkhand Rastgou and my dream came true. Now I am a model!" With these words, one of the first women to take the title "fashion model" in Iran introduced herself to the press. Moments before, she and two dozen others had taken part in the first-ever fashion show in the Islamic Republic. After weeks of practicing their Claudia Schiffer moves on the catwalk, they had performed their program before the incredulous eyes of thousands of female spectators.

Fearing the wrath of conservatives, the show's organizers had sought to dispel any putative linkage with Western fashions and tastes. They had publicized it as a "youth fair" and ingeniously arranged for it to be part of a weeklong arts-and-crafts exhibition. The fashion show itself was made up of two parts, a 10-minute contemporary show and a much longer traditional part. But the former was clearly the real attraction.

On this opening night, the announcer went out of her way to dispel any association with Western styles. "Perfect for wearing under the chador!" she bellowed into her microphone. "What we are seeing tonight is the compatibility of these beautiful dresses with our Muslim heritage." But the pounding jungle music, the saucy looks on the models' faces, and the audacious styles -- form-fitting garments in flashy hues, accompanied by token scarves and capes -- belied her words.

Few of the women present would have considered wearing any of the garments on display, and some openly laughed at the bizarre creations. But what had the audience enraptured was that the event had gone ahead at all -- that, for the first time, the concept of fashion had received the official sanction of the Islamic state. In one week, more than 16,000 women attended the show; for days afterward, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance struggled to justify its decision to issue a license for the event.

This kind of balancing act between tradition and modernity is repeated throughout Iran thousands of times each day in different settings and guises. From the parliamentary chambers to the weekly Friday prayers to dinner table discussions, what constitutes proper clothing for women remains the subject of a raging debate. The hejab, it could be argued, is to Iranian politics what abortion is to the United States -- a lightning rod, a rallying cry, and a barometer of the balance of power between conservatism and reform. How that balance will play out remains to be seen. What is clear is that now, 22 years after the revolution, men are no longer the only voice in the discussion.

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