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Lifting the Iranian veil, bit by bit

Malini Nair | Updated on December 27, 2019 Published on December 26, 2019

On their own: Women enjoy an enviable degree of safety in the bazaars and roads of Iran’s cities   -  ISTOCK.COM

The resilience of the Iranian woman keeps her visible and engaged in public spaces, despite many restrictions

Flex boards extolling the virtues of the hijab are strategically parked at some public corners in Tehran. They show a woman, exquisitely angelic and precious, eyes cast modestly down, her head, neck and torso firmly veiled, surrounded by pink blooms.

There is, however, nothing even remotely dainty about the figures bent low over the laboratory equipment at the Royan Institute of Biotechnology, the premier centre for advanced reproductive medicine in Shiraz in southern Iran. Most of the scientists here are women, hijab-ed and highly talented. “Women outnumber men in medicine in Iran; they make for about 80 per cent of the total number,” says department head Mohammad Hossein Hossein Nasr-Esfahani.

Iranian women are anything but the cosseted creature of the flex boards. It is a tribute to their indomitable courage and resilience that they remain articulate, engaged and visible in public spaces, demanding to be heard.

Occasionally, a vocal young woman will open up enough with strangers to fume at government regulations that have dictated the veil since the Islamic revolution of 1979. “I don’t like the hijab. It should be a matter of choice,” says a teen defiantly. “But it is a part of my culture,” a stylishly veiled woman pipes up. And before long a heated debate is on at Persepolis, with men jumping in as well.

Early last year a flash feminist movement had made an attempt to defy the compulsory veil rule. Sporadic rebellions against the hijab occur and, according to reports, are put down forcefully. There are other rules of behaviour reserved only for women — female musicians may not perform solo and dancing and partying are only allowed at all-women gatherings.

Till October this year, women could not attend men’s football matches. Then Sahar Khodayari, a young girl arrested for walking into a football match disguised as a man, immolated herself and the rules changed. “It was a big move forward and in the right direction,” said Gulnar Faroudi, sports anchor and a volleyball player herself, on the lifting of the 40-year-old ban.

At a restaurant in Isfahan leading to the town square, a lunch party is winding up with a folk music performance and a large group of women buddies stomp, hoot and ululate (kel keshidan in Farsi) in unison with the beat of the daf. Iranian women who resent being seen as drab and pious are at pains to tell you they do let their hair down — at home and with other women. “Of course, I wore a sleeveless gown and put my hair up at my cousin’s pre-wedding bash,” says a young woman showing you some stunning shots on her phone.

That the hijab equals segregation equals backwardness is too simplistic an equation in the case of Iranian women. Unlike the Arab world and nations where the veil is mandated either by the government or the community, women enjoy a fair number of freedoms in Iran.

Literacy among Iranian women is well over 80 per cent, its maternal mortality rate is 16 per 100,000 live births (the rate is 122 per 100,000 births in India), the country’s sex ratio is 1030:1000 — ahead of India again. It however lags far behind global figures on female employment. There is no great stigma attached to single women and 3.5 million women — single, divorced, widowed — are breadwinners for their families.

A career is increasingly integral to a woman’s life and marriages are being pushed well into the 30s, a fact that does not sit well with traditionalists. “Women are even more acutely aware than ever before that they need to build life outside of marriage,” says a young linguist who is emphatic she has to find a career before she heads for matrimony.

Masumeh Ebtekar, vice-president for women and family affairs and the first female Cabinet member in Iran after the 1979 revolution, is unfailingly polite in the face of questions on gender rights flung at her. She points to the fact that her ministry has been trying to push women into leadership roles in administration and politics, insisting on 30 per cent reservation for women in top positions in the provinces.

But as a staunch backer of the revolution, she insists the hijab is “empowering” and a feminist tool. “It is an Islamic dress code and accepted by international sports federations. It is not a restriction, it is a social regulation that ensures that women are not seen as sex objects but human beings first,” she argues.

Ebtekar doesn’t deny that young women resent the dress code and the dreaded moral policing used to enforce it. “The younger generation does question the regulation though that is not so widespread,” she says, pointing out that the hijab had been brought in by the generation that had actively supported the revolution. “We have elections every four years and the youngsters can change laws when they come to power. As for moral policing, we are trying to amend its behaviour, more an offer of advice.”

But the veil appears to have led to some strange trends: On the streets of Iran it is astonishingly common to see women with plasters on their noses covering signs of recent nose jobs. Easy availability of plastic surgery allows women — and men — to go for it. But with women, the widespread theory is that rhinoplasty compensates for the restrictions of the compulsory hijab that does not allow you to play with your looks.

In the bazaars and roads of Iran’s cities women enjoy an enviable degree of safety. They are up and about, late at night, at its cafés and teahouses, shooting the breeze, engaged in lively arguments. As for the hijab, it is put in its place — perched jauntily somewhere on the head, just about marking its presence.

Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi

Published on December 26, 2019
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