Confronting Modesty: Feminism in Iran
April is the beginning of hot days in Tehran. By the end of the month, daily highs creep ever closer to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with the occasional 85 degree shock to the system. Across the city and the country, as the mercury climbs higher, the headscarves creep back and the hems rise. It’s only a matter of time before the annual crackdown on immodest dress.
In Iran, where women—and to a lesser degree men—are required to dress according to state-mandated definitions of modesty, the position of a headscarf or length of a coat can be a political act. Pushing up against the line of "too much" is a subtle and common way citizens can respond to state oppression, a means of taking ownership of appearance back from a government that seeks to control it. For women young and old, who are stifled in overt and covert ways by the state and society, a manteaux that fits a little tighter or makeup that accentuates a favorite feature can be a powerful snub to those who would control them.
The state’s annual spring crackdown, which takes place near the end of April, has become a staple of international coverage on Iran. Once a year, modesty policemen and women station themselves at points around Iran’s cities, offering either praise or stern criticism of those whose clothing is too revealing. Accounts of run-ins with these enforcers of sartorial discretion run the gamut from simple slaps on the wrist, to the signing of contracts promising no future infraction, to being held for hours in police vans. In the past, women who have been examples of modest dress have received flowers and commendation in attempts to positively reinforce behavior alongside punishment.
But it’s not just among the women targeted that the spring crackdown and subsequent year-round policing of appearance is decried. After 36 years, the Islamic government of Iran is having a harder and harder time justifying policies like mandatory hijab, with members of Parliament and government officials—men and women—questioning the importance of things like the spring hijab crackdown.
The Politics of Modesty
Therein lies the other side of the women’s rights coin in Iran. Despite the commonly touted stereotypes about the country’s treatment of women, which are largely grounded in Islamophobic and Orientalist ideas of the Middle East, dynamic shifts in women’s rights are continuously ebbing and flowing in Iran. More often than not, despite the progressive and restrictive elements at play within the government that are portrayed as monolithic, allies in the fight for women’s rights are found in unexpected places.
The importance of policing women’s clothing (as well as men’s, but to a far lesser extent) comes under fire frequently. In 2012, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahrudi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, challenged the annual crackdown, saying that “hauling women and young people to the police station will [serve no purpose] except to cause damage to society.” Before that, controversial president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released statements in 2007 condemning what some called excessive force when dealing with women who violated dress codes. Across the government and society at large, every year brings a wave of disparate voices that question whether the crackdown is intended to distract from the many issues the government is unable to tackle effectively, showing a strong arm on something unimportant to keep attention off things like corruption and the economy.
The question of hijab requirements isn’t restricted to once-a-year discussions. During his election campaign, current president Hassan Rouhani questioned the need for restrictions on dress. He wondered aloud if policing hijab was the best way to ensure modesty, and in an interview with the magazine Chelcheragh said, “Before the revolution, many women in our society did not wear hijab—but were they not virtuous humans?” The remarks fed his reputation as a moderate candidate and no doubt won him fans among the young, often more progressive, voting block that he needed in order to win the election. It also showed the far-from-clear delineation between the “Islamic” and “republican” elements of the government, as Rouhani is an established cleric.
The Complexity of Women’s Politicization
Women at the other end of the clothing spectrum are politicized as well, but not in ways some may expect. While it’s easy to paint with broad strokes—women who challenge mandatory hijab are progressive, women who do not are complacent—the reality is far more complex.
Ayatollah Rafsanjani is a long-time establishment insider, former president, and pragmatic politician. His daughters, Faezeh and Fatemah, fly in the face of the idea that women in full chador cannot be fierce feminists. The two women have long been activists for women’s rights, with Faezeh serving in Parliament and being sentenced to six months in Evin prison for her participation in the 2009 unrest following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Though she has not held a government position, working instead in charity, Fatemah is an outspoken opponent of hardline policies.
Women outside the political establishment interact with the Islamic government in interesting ways, as well. A recent New York Times installment of their ongoing behind-the-scenes look at Iranian culture explored the way in which women who support the government feel about women’s rights. For many, the answer was wrapped up in what they saw as the revolution’s message to women. When Ayatollah Khomeini rallied supporters, he empowered women to be part of the revolution. He encouraged them to take an active role in protests and promised greater opportunity under a democratic government. Mobilizing women was key to building an overwhelming base of support, both among religious parts of society and the leftist movement with which he temporarily aligned.
The Islamic Revolution wasn't the first time women became involved in mass protest. During the early 1900s, women played a key role in the Tobacco Revolts, which challenged the weakening Qajar Shah's concessions to Great Britain. The Shah's wives joined nationwide boycotts of all tobacco products, one of the first times a popular movement was able to sway state policy in what was then called Persia.
Throughout the 20th century, women continued being politically active through participation in protest and advocating for their rights under the Pahlavi Dynasty. Before the revolution, women were able to secure progress in education and family law, including divorce rights. They were also able to enter the government and serve in Parliament. When Ayatollah Khomeini began rallying opposition to the Shah, women were encouraged to participate fully in the revolution to come. They poured into the streets, from all backgrounds and ideological stances, to support democracy in place of monarchy. Equality was a promise women wanted to see delivered on, and one for which they were more than willing to fight.
But the reality of the Islamic Revolution was not what women expected. In the immediate aftermath, Khomeini and his supporters purged their own ranks and marginalized any group not directly aligned with his ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic government. Any faction that could be a threat to Khomeini's power was forced from the country. Shortly after toppling the Shah, Saddam Hussein's Iraq attacked Iran with the backing of world powers, in hopes of bringing about a swift end to the Islamic Republic being formed next door. A horrific eight-year war followed, which destroyed the Iranian economy but strengthened the Islamic government's hold on power and projection of stability simply by their survival.
In this landscape of upheaval, women were largely silenced and relegated to the home. Scores fled with their families, including many who had worked for the Shah and feared for their lives under the Islamic Republic. Women were forced out of jobs and a pervasive atmosphere of repression left many unsure of what the future would look like. Women, it seemed, had only been a tool with which Khomeini cleared away the Shah, and when he no longer had need of them he'd put them to the side.
But Iranian women were unwilling to remain silenced forever. As the economy bounced back and the government saw an immediate need to reduce birth rates in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, women began regaining ground they lost. In some ways, the government made good on promises to women. In the years after the revolution, Iran was able to reach gender parity in education, and today more women enter universities than men. Iran’s family planning program cut birth rates to a fraction of what they had been under the Shah, and an ambitious rural health program brought natal care to women who had long been without it. The building blocks of empowerment were slowly coming into place.
Gains in education and family planning grew as the economy stabilized and the political spectrum became a little more flexible. The pragmatic presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani saw a shift toward greater freedoms, and his successor Mohammed Khatami loosened things even more. Restrictions on dress were eased in practice if not on paper, and Khatami vocally advocated for greater freedoms for women. Riding those waves of change, women were able to re-enter the workforce in larger numbers, push cultural envelopes that had kept them in a domestic setting, and begin rallying support for feminist movements.
Women Continue to Push Forward
Today, women's rights activists have to walk a careful line that simultaneously affirms their commitment to the country and challenges the status quo. Although under Rouhani women have seen a few significant gains, such as the appointment of the first female ambassador and the first female spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, running afoul of the security forces can land them in Evin prison. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer and women's rights advocate, was held on vague charges of conspiring against the state from 2010 to 2013, when she was released without warning ahead of President Rouhani's first United Nations visit.
The threat of arrest or assassination has not stopped Iranian women from organizing. The feminist magazine Zanan, which ceased production briefly between 2008 and 2014, has been a remarkable voice in the fight for reform since 1992. An Islamic publication, it has tackled presidential campaigns, domestic abuse, and equality through a feminist lens while using Islamic teachings as the basis for their argument. It's a balancing act that speaks to the ways in which activists have to seek legitimacy within the framework of the government's interpretation of Islam, and as a Shia state with many competing clerical voices that's often not a simple task.
Even as women were able to make more choices regarding education and family planning, they’ve found themselves bumping into walls in employment and cultural expectations. This isn’t true of all women; some have been able to secure high ranking positions in government and academia, with even the conservative Ahmadinejad’s wife working as a university professor. But for many, the reality is that women are the last hired and first fired, with unofficial barriers blocking paths to upward mobility and greater opportunity.
Women's rights are wrapped up in larger domestic and international political concerns. Economically, women struggle to enter the workforce during downturns. In 2012, 36 universities barred women from entering around 77 programs, including STEM courses which had been majority female. Although female repression is one lens through which to see the ban, it also coincided with major economic upheaval and ongoing sanctions that drove the value of the Iranian rial into the ground. Unemployment across the country was on the rise, and while it does not excuse the sexist policy, it does exemplify the symbiotic relationship between politics and women's rights more broadly. Similarly, harsh spring crackdowns on dress have occurred when the government finds it prudent to show control and project power inward, such as in 2007 when international and domestic unrest seemed to threaten regime change.
One video in The New York Times' "Our Man in Tehran" series shows an interview with Najiyeh Allahdad, a supporter of the government who says there are no laws restricting women. But she immediately told the Thomas Erdbrink, the Times' Tehran bureau chief, that she thinks, “there are hands at work, and I personally think male hands, that want to keep women on a short leash.” Allahdad, who supports the Islamic revolution, sees female empowerment and opportunity as part of the foundation of Iran’s government, and she’s not alone. By empowering women and then limiting their potential, the government has created its own culture of opposition.
The spring modesty crackdown is, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger issues that come together around women’s rights. It’s a window into the machinations and complexity that swirls just below the surface and may not be immediately apparent to the casual observer. Far from a simple yearly tradition, the spring crackdown is the playing out of internal currents pushing for and away from change. As women push back their headscarves and confront the security forces in the streets, they are continuing in their own small way a trend toward greater freedom that has been stymied at various turns, only to progress again when the opportunity comes. The Iranian road to reform may be long and complicated, but it's one that Iranian women have been walking for generations.