The Ultimate Unveiling of Iranian Women
By FARZANEH MILANI
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 © 2009 Farzaneh Milani – distributed by Agence Global