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Photo Essay: Namaz Jomeh

by GABRIELA MAJ in Tehran

25 Jun 2010 18:3212 Comments
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Twenty-first anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The women-only car on the Tehran subway was completely full, but at every station more black chador-clad bodies found a way to push in. It was ten in the morning on June 4, 2010. We rode like this for a long time, longer then I had expected. Every stop a white-knuckled, sweat-slicked battle. It was only when the train was beyond the city limits and the waiting crowds on the platforms thinned that the fight for space and comfort eased, everyone shaking and leaning with the motion of the car in unison, waiting with resigned patience for our stop, waiting for Haram-e Motahar Station.

Pressed up against each other like black sardines, we neared our destination. The women spontaneously broke out in chant, several phrases about the love of Allah. A single voice began the chant from somewhere deep within the chador thicket. The words picked up force as they made their way from mouth to mouth, a forest fire in Farsi. It reminded me of sports fans on their way to a game, the only other situation in which I have heard people singing together on the subway. Only on this occasion the tone was more solemn, the cadence slow and heavy, the pitch one of exaltation. A requiem fit for an ayatollah.

When the doors finally opened at the last station, the women poured out while crowds emptied simultaneously from the men-only cars. Chaos on the platform, sweat-drenched screaming children, more pushing and pulling, everyone trying to make phone calls, desperately searching for their family members. Bodies moved as if caught in a river after a storm. The seething crowd made its way out from under the surface of the earth through a bottlenecked passageway. A straining human chain of men braced itself against the deluge dividing the genders so that women ascended via the escalators on the left while the men walked up the stairs alongside them to the right.

At the gates of the station, fierce sunlight temporarily blinded the anxious crowd. There was more shouting, more searching. Women cloaked in black wearing white visors and gloves waited for their husbands, children held posters of Khomeini, black flags flew in the electric blue sky, and neon orange popsicles dripped down bare hands and chins, the midday heat an unbeatable enemy.

People had arrived in droves by bus, by car, by train, and on foot from across the entire country. For every person from Tehran there seemed to be a hundred rom somewhere else -- a small town, from another city, from where the satellite television channels had been successfully blocked that week. In Tehran, though I had heard people complaining of headaches supposedly caused by satellite-blocking signals, the BBC and CNN were on every private television I encountered. In cities such as Shiraz or Esfahan, however, there were only the seven government-regulated channels in recent days, airing documentaries about Khomeini's achievements and the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War. The sanctioned newscasts announced that the crowd I stood among was two million people strong. Indeed, the masses stretched out as far as the eye could see, but they were too loosely knit to be confident that the enormous figure was accurate.

The sun was unleashing a 40°C assault. There was dust and chaos at the water trucks. Green-uniformed Basijis with rifles and nightsticks wove their way through the crowd while military helicopters chopped through the air. Ayatollah Khamenei's voice boomed over the stadium loudspeakers. He shouted about murder on the flotilla and about the blind eye the world had turned to the crimes of Israel against Palestine. He spoke for a long time, and I had many translators that afternoon as I made my way toward the interior of the shrine. Some of the people spoke about Khomeini and the liberation of Iran from beneath the oppression of the British. Some spoke of the courage of Hamas. One woman bought me a lemon ice cream; another gave me a handful of sour green plums. "He says Iran will not be controlled by America. Iran will not be forced to purchase their uranium. He says Iran will not be robbed like it was when the Shah was in our country." There was a roar from the crowd, many fists raised in the air with anger and conviction.

When the Supreme Leader finished his address, the masses rose to their feet, everyone facing in the same direction. The crowd fell silent and still. Even the children froze in place. It was time to pray. Allah-o Akbar. Khamenei's words whispered their way through the air. The ancient invocations amplified over the loudspeakers cast a spell. The people began to whisper in response, reaching their hands toward the sky, palms facing upward, mouths moving in unison to a rhythm known by heart, then bodies kneeled and foreheads pressed to tiny disks of dried earth from holy Karbala. As the people prayed, the Basijis stood guard, guns loaded, nightsticks glistening, beads of sweat trickling down their cheeks and darkening their green collars.

With the main building filled to capacity, crowds had assembled outside on the small lawns and vast expanses of concrete. They stood on prayer mats and newspapers in socks or bare feet. Some tried to shield themselves from the sun with straw hats or blankets, but ultimately there was no refuge. The heat rose from the ground like water, shimmering and distorting the battalions of women around me. Small frenzies erupted around those who fainted, momentary tears in the densely woven carpet of praying people. The heat poured down from the sky, an insistent, blistering onslaught. At moments, through the sweat in my eyes, it seemed to me as if there was one single piece of black chiffon, draped and billowing, a thousand meters long.

Photos and text by Gabriela Maj.

Copyright © 2010 Gabriela Maj, Tehran Bureau

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Allah-o Akbar. Khamenei's with us up to dead of all shiia country of iran and worlds . Allah-o Akbar. Khamenei's in my blood up to dead iam with you ali khamenis , Khamenei's presedent of iran , it is my line , my country , Iam proud of you khamine , dead by green which gaints of islamic shiia of iran .

Dr Miss Eshrat Halim , mohammad Ali hussain India

Anonymous / June 26, 2010 10:18 PM

Glorifying a mass murderer and the regime of corruption and hypocrisy by a foreign Islamist is bit too much TB! Don't you think?

No decent Iranian citizen attends these demonstrations of hypocrisy. Those who do are there for the handouts, obliged to do so, paid by the regime or are foreign Islamists!

Maziar / June 27, 2010 2:00 AM

There are many people in Iran who still think Khomeini is a saint. I do not think that the ones who attend only attend for handouts or because they have to. Just because you disagree with the regime does not mean you love the Shah and hate Khomeini.

Farshid / June 28, 2010 7:28 PM

Beautiful writing!

Jason / June 28, 2010 7:39 PM

Fantastic! Irrespective of where you fall on this issue, this piece resonates.

Pegah / June 30, 2010 7:50 PM

I am so curious about exactly how the Islamic women feel in regards to being "blamed" for mens personal weaknesses in nature..?? I live in a tiny town in America (Hereford, Arizona), and having grown up in a "modesty is Godly" home myself, I do believe that women SHOULD be modest, but, you can be modest without having to be completely covered in black cloth...we should not be blamed for a mans "sexual issues"!!! A woman should be judged on her character, not if she wears a "veil" to hide herself. BUT.., I am very curious as to how female Iranians feel about this requirement.., maybe they have "no issue/problem" with it..and therefore perhaps the media makes a bigger deal of this than it really is..???! Respond back please...

meda henderson / July 3, 2010 1:59 AM

Dear Meda,

I see that you still await a response on this thread.

No wonder. It's a very emotive subject that most Iranians struggle to think about logically or discuss honestly.

Iran has spent a tragic century trying to negotiate the transition from a traditional society to a modern state.

It has failed to develop the consensus-building mechanisms for adopting new social, ethical and political norms for the transition.

Many wish to import these norms from the West wholesale, some brave souls are trying to extract the principles of female emancipation from a progressive reading of Islam, others struggle to bend the challenge of modernity to obscurantist religious tradition, and the great majority drift to their own points of uneasy equilibrium in the vast muddled middle.

The issue of female modesty is not inseparable from this larger struggle for defining normative values.

If you have time, try to Google search the documentary, "We are Half of Iran." It should be available with hard-coded English substitles, either on Youtube or on a Torrent server.

It deals with a group of prominent Iranian feminists and activists -- Islamist, secular, conservative and liberal -- who worked together to lobby candidates running in last year's elections to support their platform of equal rights.

The Glass House, a first-class documentary by Hamid Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard, tracks the experiences of runaway girls who seek shelter at a Tehran day center founded by Marjaneh Halati, an Iranian expat.

These documentaries don't address your questions directly, but will give you a far better feel for the texture and complexity of Iran's homegrown feminism than jaundiced Western punditry and Iranian native informants plying their sly trade in American universities and thinktanks could ever hope to provide.

Ali from Tehran / July 4, 2010 3:19 AM

I so appreciated your response, and I will certainly look up the documentaries you listed above!! thank you for directing me to them :)

I do love your "jaundiced Western punditry' comment..., as it is what I imagined our false media to give us.

It is apparent though that women have more power than what they (the Iranian government) wants them to realize though. Now I DO NOT support an American version of "female sexuality/power"...it is a sad sight indeed, but I am thankful that we (Americans) are able to decide how we want to live our lives..as well as exposing a mans "choice" of preference in female character, rather than them being able to hide behind some false control restriction (female covering) to portray themselves as "holy" and "pure" .., when in reality they are probably anything but ...

meda / July 6, 2010 9:04 PM

although I was unable to locate the "We are half of Iran" film, I did find the following youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-BHx1jxlHY&feature=related pretty good info clip...I do see a lot of hypocrisy

meda / July 6, 2010 10:44 PM

Dear Meda,

Here you go:


Happy viewing.

Ali from Tehran / July 7, 2010 11:04 AM

Dear Ali~
thank you so much! I watched the docu, and was appalled at the restrictions/limitations...aughhh :`( so sad. I really must say that it makes me appreciate soooo much more my American freedoms and opportunities! But it also makes me angry, and desirous to help Iranian women...I think I will be looking online for a coalition to help the women over there...The lack of concern of the "clerical" politicians (at the end) was so obvious...certainly will take a fundamental change in the thinking of males for any progress to be made in womens equality/rights. It may take some time..., but American women have made huge gains in the last 100 yrs (not all positive...) so if the women over there REALIZED the POWER they have JUST IN THEIR JOINED NUMBERS.., they could OVERTAKE the society. But it also requires the knowledge of what is acceptable to them and what is not. Are they ok w/ the dress limitations? or the forcing of sitting in the back of the bus? These practices are really (at least I feel they are), just a device to keep control/limitations on them and therefore should be rebelled against in MASS NUMBERS. But I know.., am just an American w/ no real involvement

meda / July 7, 2010 9:36 PM

Dear Meda,

Not sure how to answer you.

Be mindful that the standards of modesty and decorum do vary between societies.

In France and Italy, revelations of infidelity would buttress a president's prestige. In the US, with its Puritan heritage, it can end a politician's career in disgrace.

In some European countries, being topless in public is no big deal. In your country, it would get you arrested for indecent exposure.

The problem in Iran is that, in the absence of homegrown democratic mechanisms, nobody really knows what the consensus definition of modesty would be, or even if such a consensus could be arrived at.

In the documentary you watched, women of very different backgrounds and beliefs came together to fight much more devastating problems: legal discrimination in marriage and divorce, child custody, legal testimony, running for political office, civic and workplace rights, inheritance, etc.

This was no mean feat, as conservative and liberal women in Islamic societies usually cannot agree on such matters.

By comparison, the problem of mandatory hejab is, for many Iranian women, a minor but nagging irritant.

Ali from Tehran / July 8, 2010 12:27 AM