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The Ultimate Unveiling of Iranian Women

14 Jul 2009 01:3230 Comments

Photo/Newsha Tawakolian


Have you considered the gender makeup of the two opposing camps in Iran today?

On one side, is an all-male cabal of gun-totting, club-wielding men -- the Army, the Revolutionary Guard and the volunteer militia -- supported by the pantheon of the highest government offices in the land -- the Supreme Leadership, the Presidency, and membership in the Guardian Council -- all monopolized by men.

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the military junta in Sudan, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia, this faction advocates a strict separation of men and women. They want the physical space and with it the social order separated based on gender. They want to segregate mosques, schools, universities, beaches, and buses.

During his term as the mayor of Tehran, President Ahmadinejad proceeded to institute separate elevators for men and women in municipal offices.

On the other side, is a sea of lawfully demonstrating men and women marching side by side and shoulder to shoulder. Holding hands, green in color, hopeful in outlook, vibrant and non-violent, they fight bullets and batons with open hands and support Mir Hossein Moussavi, who is often accompanied by his wife, Zahra Rahnavard.

In this camp, there is a massive and unprecedented presence of women and a heightened desire for gender equality and integration.

Traditionally, the Iranian nation was made up of two societies -- one male, one female -- separate and unequal. The worlds of men and women were kept apart by confining women to designated spaces and restricting their physical mobility. Women's place, it was argued, was not public but private; not out in the streets but inside the home.

A synonym for the word "woman" in the Persian language is Pardeh Neshin: "She who sits behind the curtain / the veil / the screen." The expression perpetuates, even linguistically, the cultural ideal of woman's absence in public. Pardeh Neshin implies enclosure, invisibility, and controlled mobility, all associations that are inseparable from conventional definitions of femininity in Iran.

For centuries, masculine honor and feminine propriety demanded that a woman maintain public anonymity. She enveloped her body in a veil, covered her voice with silence, and, ideally, did not intrude into the outside world.

Western travelers to Iran in the 18th and 19th centuries often commented on the uncanny absence of women from the public domain. By the same token, Iranians who traveled to Western countries were shocked by the presence of women -- unveiled no less -- in the streets.

It was finally in the mid-19th century when pioneering Iranians -- women and men -- began to argue against gender apartheid. They were prompted by religious reform movements, encouraged by forces of modernity, exasperated by the injustice of sex-segregation, frustrated by the cultural, political and economic damages it caused.

Unsurprisingly, the path to integration has been strewn with difficulties, its cost exorbitant, its process long, even bloody. Whereas some welcomed desegregation, others blamed all the ills of society on "parading" women. They saw them as the polluters of native and authentic culture, a tool of imperialist conspiracies, the primary accomplices of the superpowers that exploited Iran.

While the 1905 Constitutional Revolution advocated the entry of women in the public arena, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in its early days, attempted to "purify" the public space of women. At times, women's public emergence was considered a shortcut to modernity, at other times, the symbol of a lost order; now seen as a badge of national honor, it was then believed to be an emblem of collective shame.

However, through all the mixed messages -- the confusion and disappointment and frustration -- women used all their ingenuity to slip across traditional lines, overstep limits and stride onto forbidden ground. Beginning with religious activism in the mid-19th century, and expanding into politics, they increasingly asserted and inserted themselves in public. They stayed sure and confident and never gave up their belief in human rights, their dream of integration, their desire for democracy.

The recent protests in Iran were about elections rigged, hopes of reform dashed, dreams of democracy shattered. Yet, the vital and unparalleled presence of women among the demonstrators and their conspicuous absence among the repressors cannot be overlooked. It speaks volume about each camp and their respective worldview and agenda.

Ironically, the thugs, who would want to revive and preserve a segregated Iran and beat women behind tall walls back to their "proper place," undermine their own agenda. Such brutality has focused the global gaze on Iranian women -- the ultimate act of unveiling.

Farzaneh Milani is professor of Persian literature and Women Studies at the University of Virginia.

Copyright (c) 2009 Farzaneh Milani - distributed by Agence Global

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well, i guess you haven't seen those women with "Chador" who beat up other women in the pictures yet, right?!

nashenas / July 13, 2009 9:54 PM

I've often wondered about the latent misogyny behind so many religions. What kind of people were the founders of those religions? And what kind of people would follow such hateful men?

How many millions and millions of people have died throughout history all for someone else's idea of god? And how many more have been subjugated, persecuted, imprisoned and tortured? I've said it before and I'll say until I die, mankind will never really know peace until all religions are done away with.

Dave In America / July 13, 2009 9:55 PM

This is the first article posted on TB that I feel disgusted by. The author makes it seem like women have always had a nice position in the West, and that we have to "learn it all" from the West. While the West can set many good examples in terms of women's rights _today_, these rights have been attained recently, and were non-existent in the early 19th century, not to mention the 18th century. Furthermore, this whole thing about unveiling is nothing but a perverted obsession of anti-Islamic sentiments. Indeed and agreed, many (if not most) women in Iran would prefer to throw that enforced piece of garbage off their heads, but what about those who do not view it as such? What about those _choose_ to wear a beautiful ornament on their heads, which they call a roosari? What about those who _choose_ to wear a hijab as a manifestation of their devotion? Sounds like the author wants the Shah back. But the majority in Iran don't want the Shah back. The reason why people are protesting is not merely because they want to throw the veils banned in society, but because they want tolerance and justice. And tolerance includes tolerating and RESPECTING those who _choose_ the hijab, without directing Western prejudice against their intelligence, or accusing them of being victims of physical/psychological abuse. Inserting more tolerance and respect, in lieu of prejudice into your writings could have benefited your article, and make it a more worthy read.

Mr. Greenthumb / July 13, 2009 10:09 PM

I want to agree with the author, but this article had a very weird tone-- I can't exactly place why. But I'm not sure that the author is very educated about women in 18th and 19th century US/Europe. The public/private sphere dicotamy was in full force here too.

shir-zan / July 13, 2009 11:02 PM

What you said about the "traditional" absence of women in public in Iran is true for urban women, esp middle and upper classes. Rural and nomad women, however, have been traditionally almost as public as men (although it depends on the region too). More than 70% of Iran's population used to live in rural areas, so I would say majority of Iranian women did not even fall into your category of "Iranian women" of the 18th and 19th centuries.

While writing about one social structure, please do not ignore other structures as they are all inter-related. Gender, class, and ethnicity are not separable. Iranian women are not a homogeneous group, and based on class and/or ethnicity they have diverse experiences of gender. However, the stereotypic cliche of Iranian women have been middle class urban women (probably as a result of Euro-centrism; since they were the ones who called European travelers' attention) . After that everyone who wanted to write about "traditional" life of women in Iran started off from that model. Unless you explicitly mention that you are talking about certain class of women, you, like many others, are just feeding the stereotypes by lumping up all women across class, ethnicity, region, and time together and treat them as a unified homogeneous category.

Saam / July 13, 2009 11:22 PM

I have a different perspective on this article and mine is full of inspiration.

I think the recent news coming about and from Iranian women is a testament to their high self esteem in the face of their traditionally misogynistic society and government. I am reminded that it wasn't long ago that females in American society were segregated and so I feel the need to show respect and admiration for these feminine citizens of Iran.

I think it's curious that some of the comments here reflect a misunderstanding of freedoms American females enjoy. In fact, our society is still hyper-focused on the sexuality and exploitation of women, pays women less for equal work and is still politically saturated with men. Culturally speaking, our society shows little respect and care for mothers, as opposed to the Middle Eastern cultures I have experience with through my sons' school.

So, Dave in America and Mr. Greenthumb, I appreciate the spirit behind your comments. And, I challenge you to view your statements regarding this "misogynistic" culture you imply being inferior to our American standards of feminism. Our attitudes may be more passive but they are none the less aggressive toward women.

Thank you for running such a thought provoking article.

Thank you for running this article.

AmericanWoman / July 13, 2009 11:34 PM

Great article, Prof. Milani. Bravo. It's a rightful indictment not of Islam per se but of the poisonous outcome that comes when religion (run by men) mixes with governance (also run by men).

One of the great aspects of this #IranElection movement is that it has exposed the cracks of the outdated East-versus-West paradigm that folks like "Mr Greenthumb" have for 30+ years tried to frame our quest for liberation. Human rights are UNIVERSAL ideals, and the freedom of expression, equality and the ability to wear whatever you want (without harassment) are what our young women of Iran long for.

Yes Mr Greenthumb, the "West" has advanced in the area of gender equality. Yes it's true. "Western" nations like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Japan, Korea, etc.

Mehdivox / July 14, 2009 12:08 AM

Mr. Greenthumb,

Do you really believe that any woman is against choice?? It is okay; we are very used to these types of rants as well. This is what women on the west face. Women of other nations, REGARDLESS of specific religion, face far far worse. It is not, as you say an issue of choice. It never has been. Whether here in America or in the Congo, China, India, or yes most Muslim nations that base their laws on "sharia," there is a remarkable correlation between fundamentalism and the status of women.

These are your mothers, sisters, that are hidden and abused, killed and tortured. These are women. Why are our rights worth less? Why are our rights singled out? Why do we have to live in fear of men? Why?

DellaRae / July 14, 2009 12:47 AM

Dave, you're right in many respects, but there are some religions that just aren't like that. Religions where women and men are equal, where there's less dogma and more wanting peace and inter-faith dialogue. Not that I'm anything but agnostic, but if people need religion in their lives, and many seem to, then maybe they should gravitate towards the more peaceful, humane, equality religions? Not much chance of that happening.

When one single person harms another physically, and worse, isn't held accountable, I wonder what humanity we really do have. And when it happens en masse, in an already repressive regime, I wonder what other many agendas are at play. One can only presume - money and power, the bane of politics. And in Iran, a lifetime of brainwashing has produced people who think nothing of perpetrating violence and murder in the name of politics and religion.

So often I have to explain to people from oppressive, violent regimes that the goverment's job in most counties is to HELP people, not hurt them, and that in most countries, the government does a fine job and isn't to be feared.

Watch how we sit and think, 'isn't it terrible' about what's going on in Iran, but what can we do? Really! Who is going to hold to account the perpetrators of all this violence, lies, murders and hangings in Iran and in other countries?

Not a single international body exists which can stop the violence right now! Not a single international body exists that can go in and arrest those responsible, and charge them with crimes.

Why? Haven't we learned anything?

Shirin / July 14, 2009 1:47 AM

Mr. Greenthumb. I could not have said it better myself. Though I can not speak on Ms. Milani's behalf with regard to the Shah, I share your views on everything else in your reply. If you had a FB account, I would like to read more of your posts. Thank you. U da man!

Khash / July 14, 2009 1:48 AM

@Mr. Greenthumb: I can't quite follow you on the "west" part as the only reference to the west are the traveller reports from the 18th century. But I fully support your appeal for making sure that that a new way of thinking in iranian gender treatment has to be based on respect and tolerance.

Again I can't find any sign that Farzaneh Milani wants all iranian women to unveil, but she wants them to have the *possibility* to choose if they want to which currently out if disrespect and intolerance they haven't.

from Germany / July 14, 2009 5:21 AM

To Dave in America:

Your ridiculous assertion about the genesis of all war being based on religion is ridiculous. If we ban all religion we would have to do away with Christianity which teaches The Ten Commmandments which is a pretty decent set of morals for people to live by. You seem to be confusing Sharia Law and radical Islam, (which is intent on segregating women from men as described in the piece) with all religion, which is a very simplistic approach to religion and totally absurd. Banning religion is a form of totalitarianism. Hoping for an end to all religion is foolish and non-productive. Just because a conquering Army slaughters innocents in the name of Christ doesn't make it a Christian organization.

Luke W / July 14, 2009 6:03 AM

u cant blame religion for the actions of men thats like blaming GOD for things that we do. Peace will come when man realize thatdifferent ideas is what makes religion what it is, if all religion believed the same things religion would not exist now its those differences that kept religion in our hearts and minds, and when we realize that true religion is not something you study its somenthing you live and become. Everyone has their own views of religion and thats the way its suppose to be, just dont condemn me cause my beliefs are a little different than yours. Theres only one GOD! How u worship and live for him is up to each individual.

darkness0115 / July 14, 2009 8:15 AM

Women of Iran, your heads must be spinning with the twists and turns of your government, human rights, the roles of women and the role of religion in your lives. We in the west have followed your humour, strength, dignity, gentleness, intellectual ability and openness and wondered at how you have coped with a regime that uses religion as a cover for mysogeny and brutality. How is your leader `supreme`? How can you possibly reconcile your country stoning women (and men) for adultery? Are we living in the 21st century? Iran is a huge country and mostly the information we get is from Tehran, where people have more money and maybe more western values- are all women being represented? As for covering your faces and bodies with cloth- I just don`t see hoe this has anything to do with religion- if it did why wouldn`t both sexes wear it? Why do men want to hide your beauty and why should they decide for you what is and is not permissable to wear? Have men got your interests at heart? Let`s please redefine womens` rights and sort out the squabbling men that daily cause more carnage and misery. Why can`t your government respect you- because you deserve it.

jill from glasgow / July 14, 2009 8:40 AM

I initially came to this article because I was offended that someone was unveiling Iranian women. Now, to clarify, I have no problems with Iranian women unveiling themselves. I believe in the equality of genders. I also believe in the freedom to interpret your religion in any way that respects the rights of the people around you, though. This means that if a woman interprets her Islamic faith to mean that her devotion to that faith requires strict segregation from men, I respect that. I also understand that freedom of religion is not universal.

This conflict is one of the few where nobody really "wins". In this case, traditional culture requires antique views on gender relations. So, you are faced with either transition to a modern gender view or preserving cultural heritage. Finding a compromise that is not an "unhappy medium" where everybody feels like something is lost will be very difficult. This is a challenge the people of Iran face and one I do not envy you.

Some would say that any culture that perpetuates inequality and has ever been used to hide the kind of injustice that the Islamic segregation of women has can not possibly have any value. I say that culture is a personal link to your racial history and to ignore it or devalue it is to lose something very valuable. The challenge is how to maintain the tradition without maintaining the outdated value system.

Ultimately, in situations like this it is the traditions and culture that lose out. As much as I like to see people gain freedom and equality I cannot help but feel sad at the loss at the same time. I just hope they can find a way to honor their past as they look to the future.

While the traditions that kept them separate and apart were used for ill, I very much doubt they were entirely intended to subjugate women. My impression of these traditions is they were meant to honor women, but went horribly wrong. They were taken so far that they ended up doing the opposite of what they intended.

Alex Wollangk / July 14, 2009 10:11 AM

America has done this to Iran.

Radical Guy / July 14, 2009 10:46 AM

There is real truth here, further symbolized or encoded in Iranian culture, I think, but the distinct between the "biruni" (the outer part of the house where guests are welcomed and business conducted -- mostly by men) and the "andaroon" (the inner portion for women and children, where the "heart and hearth" are felt to reside).

The biggest absence I see in this discourse and most of what is available in the media about Iran is any analysis of the deep social class differences in the country and economy and how those intersect -- indelibly -- with both political opposition and gender issues.

Peter / July 14, 2009 11:50 AM

Great points!!

Thanks Tehran Bureau for all your hard work.

Shahpour / July 14, 2009 1:11 PM

Luke W, I said we will never know peace until religions are gone. That's not saying all wars are started over religion. Greed is definitely a big reason. But religion is and has been a main reason for wars, genocide, persecution, torture, imprisonment, etc... You cannot deny this. And don't you dare sit there and say Christianity is innocent when it comes the deaths of millions of people throughout history. And most of those atrocities were committed not only with the blessing of the Vatican, they were also committed by so-called "good Christians" in the name of their god. Geez, even today Christians are killing for their god and their leaders call for the murders of anyone who disagrees with them.

And I never said to ban anything. I would rather people just stop going to church and stop brainwashing their kids into believing they have to worship a so-called god who's disgusting ego must be fed constantly and whose violent temper is to be feared above all else. If your gods are real, they are terrible beings. They're worse than Hitler, Stalin, Pot, Hussein, etc... all put together. "I'm a loving, peaceful god. I just want you to love and obey me and suffer in my name AND IF YOU DON'T...!"

And do you really need the bible and its commandments to tell you it's wrong to kill? I don't. I know it's wrong without the bible. If you need the bible to keep you from killing people, you may need more than a bible, my friend.

Dave In America / July 14, 2009 1:21 PM

Iranian women should know their place. And i blame the "African-American" Obama for even speaking about the Iranian women fighting. All that has done is encourage them even more to run their mouths. Both the Iranian women and Obama need to mind their own business. Iran was a stable country before they started this protest.

Koran expert / July 14, 2009 7:37 PM

Ah Mr. Greenthumb, your "disgust" betrays your apparent ignorance of Professor Milani's distinguished scholarship -- try googling for it before you go tossing around insults..... She's anything but a stooge for any regime, past or present.

Read the last paragraph again more carefully.... by "unveiling," try to not be so literal. Prior to the recent protests, Iranian women were to outside eyes little more than faceless "blackness".... that when they chanted and marches, they did so only in ways seemingly so alien and hostile. (images that the neocon media, such as Nafisi & Mahmoudy happily made fortunes stoking)

The fact that the recent election campaign indeed did feature Musavi's wife so prominently (and Rafsanajni's daughter) was a stunning development. The prominent role of women in the subsequent protests -- also astonishing....

By cracking down on them so fiercely -- attention was drawn to them -- and in that metaphorical sense, the old stereotypes about Iranian women in monolithic black has been profoundly changed.... that is, a "veil" of outside ignorance has been removed.

Sorry Mr. Greenthumb you didn't realize the profound subtlety in the analogy.

Picard / July 14, 2009 11:06 PM

Thank you Picard. You said it all.

Mr. Greenthumb you have no idea what you are talking about. That's apparent from the fact that you misunderstood all of Dr. Milani's article. You twisted everything she said to fit your own agenda. There was no indication in her article as wanting to remove the veil forcefully or bringing back the Shah. Maybe you read a different article than I did?!

It is unfortunate that some people will easily dismiss Iranian women's struggle for equality, justice and freedom by branding it as western, and therefor as something alien to the Iranian culture. How do these people define the Iranian culture is also unclear.

Sara / July 15, 2009 1:18 PM

Outstanding essay, Professor Milani. Short and to the point. As a man, I firmly believe that the plight of not only Iranians, but the world at large, hinges on the unconditional emancipation of women everywhere on the planet.

I have immense admiration for the Iranian women -- only those who have freed themselves from the yoke of islamic misogyny and have arisen to demand their rightful place of equality.

I am sure you are aware of the magnificent trailblazer, Quratulain of Ghazvin who was murdered for her unceasing work of gender equality and freedom from the shia religious chains to which the mullahs had secured the nation of Iran for centuries.

Great job, Professor. Keep on writing, speak up, and enlighten the people of the world that women, the world over, are every bit as valued/capable members of the human race and they must be afforded their full rights and responsibilities in all areas of life. Women are not chattel. Women are not only sex objects for carnal pleasure of men.

seeroos / July 15, 2009 1:33 PM

Wow! This discussion is fantastically varied in background and view, while this forum allows such a free venue for expression, it will almost certainly help some people learn about Islamic and Christian cultures.

From the Bible, we learn that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. How that got twisted into wars with others in the name of God shows how badly humans can misinterpret what God's intentions are.

That humans have twisted their beliefs to justify unkind behavior toward others is not the fault of God, nor of the Scriptures which should guide our behavior, but the blame lies on those people who behave in ways different from what God would want.

For its time, the Bible elevated the role and level of respect for women, giving them critical roles and declaring them to be blessed and worthy of respect, at a time when women were not valued by virtually all major societies.

I hope and pray that women in Iran will be increasingly able to participate in, contribute to, be respected by and build their society alongside men who respect and value them.

Roger / July 15, 2009 10:55 PM

Farzaneh khanom,

As all Tehran Bureau reporters, great writing. I know this was only a short piece, but I must disagree with your portrayal of Iran. It discounts the thousands of women in the Basij Sister Organization, the amount of women in Iranian Law Enforcement Forces (for a good time, search youtube for keywords: women Iran police), and the very crucual role of women being used to intimidate and browbeat (or, simly beat) other women into towing the regime's line.

At the same time, Iran has the most liberated women in the Middle East, a low bench mark, indeed, but a bench mark all the same.

Most Iranian college graduates: Women. Most Iranian Engineers: Women. The people who would beat these owmen and make them hide themselves behind green walls: Women.

You open with the line: Have you considered the gender makeup of the two opposing camps in Iran today?

Yes, but these camps are not represented by gender, age, religion, wealth, or any socio-economic demographic. They represent those who will fight for freedom and those fighting to oppress them.

merci va moafaqh bashid

vodoqc / July 16, 2009 10:22 AM

There's only one religious practice for any religion....& that is "Love your God (if you have one) & love your neighbour as yourself" (even if you don't have a God it wouldn't be too hard to do number 2. Now, would it?

v.gerrard / July 16, 2009 10:26 AM

I lived in Iran when I was a teenager. I want all Iran women to know that they are BEAUTIFUL.....I think the most beautiful in the world. I am from the US and I have seen beauty. All iranian women...BE PROUD of who you are and show your beauty to the world!!!


Joseph / July 22, 2009 9:35 PM

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Deborah / July 23, 2009 4:13 AM

Iran: Forbidden Iran and its series of connected articles detail the struggle of women in Iran as well as their male counterparts to achieve a degree of freedom of the most basic rights. Through continued outcries and legal documentation where ever possible Iranians are battling to be free of the Islamic laws
that restrict their freedoms on the government level. The treatment of women under these laws
as portrayed by Kovan and other journalists
will eventually result in rule by the people for the people as other women in other societies have gained albeit at the great cost of many lives.

Laura D'Angelo / November 23, 2009 9:52 PM

I do not know much about politics and Iran and all the other depressing issues of the world, but I do know this....women are and should be treated as equals! Women have always contributed to the world as much or perhaps even more than men have! It is beyond my understanding why men treat women they way they have done so for thousands of years. Why can't we just live in peace? Why can't the world (the men) just accept what the truth really is? That truth being that women are just as capable and are their equals. I have a Mother, a Wife, and a Daughter.....it hurts to know that people in this world do not respect them because they are women. I want to see my daughter excel in life and I would not want to see her hindered in any way, shape or form just because she is a woman! I am a dad, a husband, and a son...I am proud of all the women in my life. I will pray for the women in Iran and hope they will win their freedom.

Son Of a Woman / November 13, 2010 9:29 PM