Monday, July 25, 2005 | Women in Iran have one absolute right: the right to pray. After the election of the reformist Ayatollah Khatami as president in 1997, women saw a door half opening, but today hopes for further liberalization are indeed slim. The conservatives who controlled the parliament are back in power with a clean sweep of Iran’s institutions. Facing demands from the United States for Iran to halt its nuclear program, Iranians became radicalized and voted for a conservative, Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.
Over the last three years, the status of women in Iran has improved, at least on paper. Sixty percent of university students and 38 percent of the government administration is female. A third of all physicians are women. Since the revolution, literacy has climbed from 5 percent to 55 percent. There are seven women in Iran’s parliament, including a number of deputy ministers. There is also equal pay for both genders.
But the limitations on women are enormous. The chador, or head-covering veil and shawl, is obligatory, and married woman require permission from their husband to work. For women, to travel abroad and get a divorce is almost impossible. Twenty-seven years after the Islamic revolution in which most women participated widely, they remain second-class citizens in the country of the ayatollahs.
Among the most influential personalities in Iranian politics, particularly in women’s issues, is Zohreh Sefati, a 50-year-old scholar. Always clad in a black chador, she is a member of the Socio-Cultural Council and a representative to the Supreme Council of Cultural Reforms. With degrees in Islamic law and Islamic theology – she even holds the title of ayatollah, although this is being debated – she has the power to influence laws affecting women’s lives. Would Sefati support initiatives for women such as issues of inheritance, easy access to pensions, improved benefits for single mothers, and an end to discrimination in foreign scholarships? The answer is not encouraging. Sefati is a brilliant revolutionary, but extremely conservative and uncompromising, seeing the world in black and white, with no room for grays. Instead of liberalization, she seeks greater adherence from women to the strict Islamic laws.
Women move like shadows as they are constrained physically by their clothing or mentally by codes of conduct that control their actions. They ride in the back of public buses; they have specially assigned carriages in the subways. But jarring exceptions and juxtapositions exist. Long-distance buses are integrated. In communal taxis, women squeeze into an empty seat between men. It is not uncommon to see women jogging, their blue jeans protruding under their black chador, wearing comfortable sneakers.
Women are on the frontline of the government-sponsored politics of personal appearances because of the hijab, the mandatory Islamic covering placed upon them. The issue of the hijab is complicated. Some Iranian women adhere to it voluntarily and would do so even if it were not the law of the land. But they may be a minority. For many young women, especially those attending university, the hijab is a blatant violation of their most basic civil rights.
The Koran is ambiguous on the matter. It recommends that women dress modestly, without clear specifications of what “modestly” means. The veil, some scholars claim, is an accretion of influences from pre-Islamic, Byzantine, Roman and Sassanid Persian societies that veiled their noble women. Others point out that the patriarchy of traditional societies has as much to do with veiling as religion.
Iranians have come to consider three types of women, defining their politics by the clothes they wear: the chadory, the manteauy and the maghnaëeh-poosh.
The chadory woman, covered in layers of black, is socially conservative and less inclined to support social reforms. For her, the chador symbolizes liberation. In contrast, the manteauy woman wears a loose manteau jacket that comes down nearly to the ankle, often a fashionably colorful headscarf. She is educated, speaks foreign languages and tends to hail from the Iranian middle- or upper- classes. The manteauy woman is believed to be either opposed to the Islamic Republic or favors reform. The maghnaëeh-poosh lies somewhere in between the two. She wears a loose fitting manteau that frees her arms to work but also a tight-fitting headscarf that resembles a cowl-like hood. She hails from the more conservative traditional middle class. She is an active participant in the workplace and generally favors the reforms of President Khatami.
Regardless of whether a woman chooses to be a chadory, manteauy or maghnaëeh-poosh, she has no right to discard a veil altogether. Caught without a veil, a woman is summoned to the police station where she is beaten even for a first offense, and then sent to court for sentencing.
For a visitor to Iran, women dressed in hijab are the most visible reminder that the Islamic Republic is still in power. With the election of a fundamentalist president, Iran returns to an Islamic winter.
Julie Hill, author of “A Promise to Keep,” is a resident of San Diego and former executive of Lucent Technologies who has traveled extensively in the Islamic world. She is a member of the Dean’s Roundtable at the Graduate School of International Relations at the University of California, San Diego.