African Women Voices
My fourth entry for the 16-day Activism Campaign against violence on women is an extract from my dissertation on Iranian women and the relationship between gender, politics and literature.
Everyday Neda went to Tehran University to study philosophy. Everyday she closed her hair in a black chador to obey the dress code of her college: long trousers, veil and no make-up. Neda hated wearing the headscarf and she often travelled to Turkey where she could unveil herself.
Neda was a tall girl. Brown meshed hair framed a round face decorated with perfectly shaped eyebrows and a thin red mouth. She was 27 years old and lived with her parents since she divorced from Amir – the man she loved since teenage. Neda liked reading and writing, her room hosted books like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptations of Christ. Her armchair was full of nice dresses, miniskirts and colourful short summer outfits.
On Saturday, June 20 2009 Neda wore her jeans, a black t-shirt a black veil that hardly covered her hair, a cap and went out in the busy streets of Tehran. She joined other citizens protesting against Ahmadinejad for the alleged cheating in the elections. Neda promised her mother she’d call every 30 minutes, and she did it. Until the telephone stopped ringing and her heart beating.
Neda Agha-Soltan was killed in unclear circumstances. Newspapers reported she was shot down by an Iranian policeman.
There were more women in Tehran streets’ that summer. They went en masse, wearing black dresses and green veils that left their hair visible. With their hands up, they asked “Where is my vote?”
This determination and will to fight of Iranian women was prized with the 2009 War Anna Politkovskaja Award. The Anna Politkovskaja Award was established in October 2007 on the anniversary date of the unsolved murder of the Russian campaigner and woman journalist. Supported by many Nobel Peace laureate, the award is honoured by Reach All Women in War (RAW WAR) association, and prizes “human rights defenders from war and conflicts,” as it’s written on RAW WAR website.
Although there is no state of war in Iran, Iranian women deserved the prize for their One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality of women launched in 2006.
Commenting on the award to the Guardian – Azar Nafisi, author of the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, said: “The constant repression that Iranian women have been tolerating for the last 30 years, does qualify them.”
The One Million Signatures Campaign website explains the aims of Iranian women. In 1963 they gained the right to vote but are still considered second class citizens. In courts their testimony is less valuable than men’s. They can get married since 13 if their fathers agree. Women soon get rid from the forced husbands they are forced to marry, as divorce rate almost doubled between 2005 and 2009.
For law a man has the right to ask for a divorce, while the woman needs to demonstrate her husband’s misconducting. In any case, husbands have the final word on divorce, and not only on that. Inside families mothers can be caretakers of their children but not guardianships; they can’t manage their finance or allow for a surgery or even buy a house for their children without their husbands’ signature.
But these family affairs are less visible. It can’t be said the smae about clothes. Women have to observe a dress code that comprehends wearing a veil, the hijab or a chador. Veils are not exclusively compulsory in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Women veil themselves in several Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. One can just get lost among the different styles of veil; Iran’s most common headscarf is yet the chador.
A chador is a long full body-covering veil often worn on another smaller veil. It is typical Iranian but the hijab is common as well. Both leave faces uncovered but the hijab goes around women faces, through their necks and lies on their shoulders.
There is both a fascination and a feeling of fear around veiled women.
Western attitude in front of the veil derives from the architectural space that a veiled woman occupies outside her country. Emma Tarlo, lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the Goldsmith University in London, describes British attitude in front of veiled women. On the London Russell Square tube station, in 2007 she observed the reaction of people when a robed figure stepped into the tube. The woman was wearing a niqab, a full-face veil that just leaves eyes uncovered; she was carrying some books, aware that everyone was curiously looking at her. But she kept her look fixed into the dark. Tarlo says that a woman next to her stopped reading and stared at the “robe”, while a man tried to avoid being seen and secretly gazed at her.
Hundreds of veiled women in the same country don’t raise any curiosity. One woman completely veiled on the London tube becomes subject of argument.
Emma Tarlo’s idea is that the veiled woman on the metro with her black niqab is present and absent at the same time since no one knows what is under that robe.
If moving from London to other parts of the Western world, the picture is pretty much the same. On July 13, 2010 the French government passed a law against “wearing signs or clothing [that] conspicuously manifest religions affiliations.” The law affects less than 2,000 women in France who wear the niqab, because it was seen as a symbol of “Islam’s strict segregation of sexes” – even if women wearing the niqab protested against the ban itself.
Now the question is, is the veil a symbol of oppression or part of national-traditional costumes? There might be something more hidden under those veils; untold tales waiting to be unveiled.
Farzaneh Milani is assistant professor of Persian at the University of Virginia. In her book, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers, she explains:
Women might be veiled or unveiled by force; but they will remain enfolded and covered by physical and psychological traces of their modes of acceptance or rejection of the veil.
Milani reconstructs the controversial history of the act of veiling. Her findings challenge French reasons for banning the veil as an Islamic symbol. Veiling was used in the pre-Islamic societies, says Milani and acknowledges that the veil in the contemporary Iran is charged with a heavy symbolism. It’s not a new phenomenon.
In 1848 American women were taking part in the Women’s Right convention while six thousand miles away, in Iran, a woman unveiled herself. She was a poetess. It was the first time in the Iranian women history. Tahereh Qorratol’Ayn took off her veil and wrote:
Should I unveil my scented hair
I’ll captivate every gazelle
Should I line my narcissus eyes
I’ll destroy the whole world with desire
To see my face, every dawn
Heaven lifts its golden mirror
Should I chance to pass the church one day
Tahereh was 36 years old when she was strangled. She was executed in 1852 for her outstanding position as leader of Babism, a religion that called for reforms in the Islamic belief. Milani suggests Tahereh’s knowledge killed her. Women were not allowed to study, at the time, most of all theology; but Tahereh’s father was a priest. She inevitably took part in his discussions and learnt from him. She read many books but had to stop studying when she got married to her cousin.
Being a wife and a mother was not the life she was dreaming about. Tahereh left her husband and went to Iraq to lead the Babis. As soon as the spiritual guide, a man, died she took his place with all the controversies this could raise.
Even today, no women in Iran occupy her position – that of a teacher and a leader in centres of higher religious learning for men, writes Farzaneh Milani.
The controversy around the meaning of veiling is still unsolved. Fawzia Zouari, an Algerian writer and journalist, sees the veil as a protection:
Headscarves in Iran have been a law matter. Veiling and unveiling laws have created a sort of schizophrenia among women in Iran. When in 1936 the Shah Pahlavi legislated the banning of veils, many women were not ready.
In her book, Milani describes those women from the ’30s who forced themselves at home rather than going out unveiled. Some wives agreed their husbands to celebrate a temporary wedding, so they could went out with the temporary wife. Others did go outside their houses, but carried inside big sacks. Unveiling themselves was too much to ask, so they asked to be put in beige, coarse, bag that their husbands had to carry on their shoulders, around the city.
Women in the ‘60s and ‘70s were spontaneously veiling without any law to force them, until it became compulsory in 1983. The law was valid for every women staying in Iran: foreigners, Muslims and tourists. While time was passing by, women acquired more rights, they were allowed to the University and reunited under the Women Organisation of Iran. The veil remained, but Milani warns:
The conventional equation: veiled/silent/absent proved to be no longer operative.