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For eons, women bodies have been idealised, theologised and politicised for the maintenance of the power relations and patriarchy in the society. This is done mainly by controlling their sexuality and freedom in public and private spheres. Hair and clothes, especially the veil, are highly symbolic in nature. It represents suppression for one and freedom for another. On one hand, where the politics around the veil and its banning has quite heated up in the past few years, there are certain countries, like Iran, where the veil is mandatory and has been a cause of oppression.

 Before looking at the case of Iran, let’s look at the symbolic manifestation of hair and its role in promoting veils.

 

Sexualisation of female hair

One of the main ways through which the opression has been carried out is by putting restrictions on women’s clothing and the repetitive usage of the terms like ‘modest dressing’. The contextualisation and historicization of the Quranic verses have been further used and propagated by the political ideologists to marginalise women. The idea that female hair is seductive and to be a source of sexual enticement for men, putting the whole responsibility on women, has been promoted by many countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. In reality, concealing female hair says more about men’s sexual anxiety than it does about the seductive power of women (Zahedi, 2007).  Hence, the trajectories thus produced have left hair to be an intriguing aspect of the social construction of Muslim women.

 

Veil

Veiling exists in almost all societies, the only difference is of the political and cultural context. However, it is widely propagated that Islamic attire projects an image of inaccessibility, thereby reducing the possibility of sexual harassment.

Some suggest that the veil symbolizes traditionalism, or the re-traditionalization, of women; that women who choose to veil do so as a strategy to gain societal esteem in patriarchal communities where it is difficult for a woman to have autonomy; that the veil is an affordable means of gaining respect for lower-middle-class women unable to afford expensive “Western” attire. It can be said so because western lifestyle which is not just about a t-shirt and a pair of jeans but it includes makeup, shoes, accessories, hairstyles etc. so, to adopt so many things at the initial stage when demand must haven’t been too high would have obviously been expensive for the Iranian women. Wearing the veil assumes that doing so predicates the one who wears it as one who adheres to traditional family values and norms including fidelity and/or sexual purity (Davary, 2009).

Initiated by Prophet Muhammad’s family and other upper-class Muslims, it gradually became a Muslim custom. The Islamic veil signified modesty and was required for all women (Zahedi, 2007). For many, it is a way of creating a distinct identity setting them apart from the European influences of money, consumerism, and immorality. It was one of the main viewpoints of Iranian men. Traditionally it signifies silence and self-concealment and hence became a way to control women participation in public.

 

Iranian history

The journey of Iranian women begins during the Persian Empire when the custom of veiling was entirely an upper-class practice and was limited to urban areas. Islamic veiling as a social and religious requirement for all women institutionalized when under Safavid rule during the 16th and 17th centuries, religious authorities gained more power and made it compulsory for all urban women irrespective of their class. Chador became an important statement of urban women, covering from head to toe (Zahedi, 2007).

But this didn’t last for long. During the late 18th and 19th century, due to European influences veiling was seen as oppressive and a reason for the seclusion of women from educational and other institutions. Reza Shah (King, 1925-41) took his views on modernity from the then president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atutark. He supported the ideas of unveiling and came up with the idea of ‘compulsory unveiling’ in 1936. This was welcomed by educated upper and middle classes and a gush of Western clothing and fashion came along this implementation. This outraged the conservatives because this was seen as an assault on the emotions and religious sentiments of women for whom the veil was a marker of respect, virtue, safety and pride. Forcefully unveiled women felt as if they were naked and many women decided not to leave their homes (Zahedi, 2007). Hence, opposed to the idea of educational liberty and non-seclusion, obligatory unveiling had an adverse impact on the lives of many women. But, the veil was revived with, Mohammed Reza Pahalvi in 1941, the time when religious leaders were given more power so as to allow women to veil. This was the point when both veiled and unveiled women could be seen, even though each carried a different social meaning. Revealed hair from the scarves was seen as modern. This changed in 1970 when Iran turned to religion for a new social paradigm. Rejecting capitalist nationalism, believers in their need for an ideal, glorified the Islamic social system as a remedy for all social ills. Islam provided them with a framework to reconstruct their ideal society and draw on their “authentic” cultures and beliefs to envision better socio-economic and political arrangements (Zahedi, 2007). This was the Authenticity movement and at the core of it were the ideals expecting women to embody all the ‘culturally authentic’ characteristics, rejecting western fashion and way of life. The proposition lied in the idea that ‘cultural imperialism’ has turned the female body into a sex object hence, a much needed ‘desexualisation’ was important via headscarves and loose-fitted clothes. There lied a paradox of the Iranian society in 1970s era. It witnessed the increased number of veiled women in the universities but in the post-1979 revolution period, it saw women protesting against the regime’s idea of re-veiling Iran. On March 8, 1979, thousands of Iranian women protested and expressed their opposition to the veil with slogans such as “freedom of choice in clothes”. It was on the agenda of the regime which promoted wearing of hijab as ‘moral cleansing’. Media played an important role in glorifying the veiled women and suppressing them and hence, created a false consensus on the veil and hijab. Slogans such as “Veiling is the divine duty,” “The worth of a woman is in her veil,” and “The stronghold of the Muslim woman is her veil” covered the walls of public places were spread through mass communication (Zahedi, 2007). The notion of female hair being erotic was propagated again.

In 2005 during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, control of women’s public attire became much tighter. The regime continuously blamed women for social corruption and the decline in morality, and a new wave of crackdowns on women wearing improper hijab carried out under the pretext of campaign against his symbol of public corruption. In 2006 the regime sponsored an Islamic fashion show, ‘Women of My Country’ with mannequins sporting colourful yet loose-fitting attire, which is itself a western concept (Zahedi, 2007).

 

Efforts of the marginalised women

During the same time period, women started raising their voices and opinions through various mediums like poems, novels, films etc. But, the emergence of the new Internet technology and blogging, women’s writing gained impetus. Through bold narration in their blogs, they unveiled the hidden woman, suppressed by the traditions of Iranian society, and revealed first-hand information about themselves which otherwise couldn’t be told publicly. If ‘improperly veiled’ women in urban public spaces were considered a challenge to sharia and the rules of public conduct in the Islamic republic, the acts of self-narration and self-disclosure in Weblogistan were considered a transgression of urf (i.e. written code of conduct and way of life) and the rules of patriarchy (Ebrahimi, 2008). The traditional image of ‘decent girl’ was hence challenged by talking openly about their sexuality, sexual relationships and also politics but under a pseudo-name. One of the movements was started from this idea of Weblogistan, My Stealthy Freedom.

My Stealthy Freedom is an online social movement that was started by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad on May 3, 2014. To address this issue a Facebook page was created where women from inside Iran could share photos of themselves not wearing their hijabs. The website is a living archive of the photos and videos shared, and the media coverage (both good and bad) that is received from inside and outside Iran. She was the first one to post a picture of herself without a hijab in a field of blossoms. Alinejad became popular for her bold, campaigning style journalism. However, because of this outspoken attitude, she was forced to exile to the UK in 2009.

In an interview given to Huffingpost, she talks about how the wind is a metaphor for freedom when women post photos with statements- I want to feel the wind in my hair. She says, “The wind is a recurring and powerful feature in the testimonies. Even the freedom to the feel the breeze through your hair is something denied to Iranian women. And it is often the accumulation of these side effects of compulsory hijab that drive the protest. A friend of mine once told me that she laughs every time she puts her headscarf on in the morning purely because it seems so ridiculous.” For her, My Stealthy Freedom is by no means against the hijab in principal, only the obligation to wear it which is a symbol of the regime and an embodiment of oppression. The ideology of the page propagates religious freedom and not religious enforcement. In the similar interview, she drew examples of the USA, where women are not allowed to practice hijab and hence, she has called both the types of control over women’s body wrong and unethical.

The campaign has now more than one million followers and has attracted international attention in July 2016 when men began sharing pictures of themselves in hijabs under the hashtag #meninhijabs in order to show solidarity with their wives, female family members and friends. While talking about the inspiration behind involving men in the movement, she says “In our society, a woman’s existence and identity is justified by a man’s integrity, and in many cases, the teachings of a religious authority or government officials influence a man’s misguided sense of ownership over women. So I thought it would be fantastic to invite men to support women’s rights.”Men who have shared their pictures in hijab have realized how the freedom they are afforded as that is denied to their wives or mother or sisters until death.

Alinejad got awarded with a prestigious women’s rights award by the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy for “giving a voice to the voiceless and stirring the conscience of humanity to support the struggle of Iranian women for basic human rights, freedom and equality.” 

 

Media coverage

When talking about the subjugation of women through clothing, the recent burkini ban too represents the same control over women’s body, forcing the imposition of one type of clothing as it is in Iran. This was not the first time when France has apparently tried to ban burkha in the name of secularism. In this sense, the French ban as Joan W. Scott has argued, is "not about practicality, but about symbolic gestures… [It] provided a way of acting out tremendous anxiety not so much about fundamentalism, but about Islam (Najmabadi, 2006).

But, the only difference is about the public and media’s attention both the issues received. This somewhere reflects the hypocrisy of the politics of Europe because the issue of Iran has been neglected by many politicians by calling it to be an internal matter, culturally sensitive issue. A picture of the mutual consensus has been created by the politicians and media that every Iranian woman is satisfied with the hijab and respects it since it is a part of their culture. The question of why the Burkini ban was taken down by the government when in Iran women are still obliged to wear the veils? “If hijab is a law and has to be respected so is the burkini ban”. “Those people in France have the media here, they have freedom of speech where - they can be heard. A Barbie wearing hijab can make news for CNN. But millions of seven-year-old girls in Iran - they are not news.” says Ms Alinejad.

 

Conclusion

Apart from carrying a cultural baggage, both covered and uncovered women are seen as the carriers of one type of threat or the other. If hijabi women are seen as terrorists and unsecular (especially post-9/11) in the west, uncovered women are seen as immoral and a source of a lure for men in countries like Iran. The difference is in being able to gain media’s and world attention to the cause. And this is only possible through freedom of speech and voice in governance. Iran’s case shows how media plays an important role because prior to the My Stealthy Movement not many were aware of it because politicians of Iran, as the founder has said, have created a rosy picture of the malaise situation of Iranian women by producing a false consensus that women are content with the hijabs. This boils down to the freedom of speech thus leading to freedom of religion or clothing. And women are indeed a victim of this vicious circle. But women like Alinejad has broken this cycle for all the women in Iran, becoming an inspiration for so many women as well as men.

 

Bibliography-

Amir-Ebrahimi, M. (2008). Transgression in Narration: The Lives of Iranian Women in Cyberspace. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 4(3), 89-118. Retrieved December 06, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/mew.2008.4.3.89

Davary, B. (2009). Miss Elsa and the Veil: Honor, Shame, and Identity Negotiations. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 25(2), 47-66. Retrieved December 06, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/fsr.2009.25.2.47

Media, S. (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2017, from http://mystealthyfreedom.net/en/

Najmabadi, A. (2006). Gender and Secularism of Modernity: How Can a Muslim Woman Be French? Feminist Studies, 32(2), 239-255. Retrieved December 06, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20459085

Saul, H. (2016, August 20). Enforced hijab in Iran and burkini ban in France are both about one issue only, says My Stealthy Freedom founder. Retrieved December 10, 2017, from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/burkini-ban-france-beaches-hijab-iran-a7201011.html

Saul, H. (2016, September 08). Campaigner asks why burkini ban was dropped in a month but enforced hijab law remains in Iran after decades. Retrieved December 10, 2017, from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/burkini-ban-hijab-campaigner-iran-why-dropped-after-less-than-month-a7232681.html

Threadgould, J. (2015, May 04). My Stealthy Freedom: How Women Take to Social Media in Their Protest Against Compulsory Hijab in Iran. Retrieved December 09, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jake-threadgould/my-stealthy-freedom-how-women-take-to-social-media_b_7203948.html 8

Zahedi, A. (2007). Contested Meaning of the Veil and Political Ideologies of Iranian Regimes. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 3(3), 75-98. Retrieved December 06, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/mew.2007.3.3.75

Picture retrieved from http://mystealthyfreedom.net/en/ 

 

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Written By Sana Alam

MA in Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi)

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