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The many shades of grey in Iran’s hijab war show it’s not just personal freedom vs theocracy

The hijab is a metaphor for a bitter struggle that involves identity, the State, and social class. For Iran's women, Westernisation was unequal—and often traumatic.

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The aigrette in his cap blazing with the diamond known as the Mountain of Light, wearing a blue cloak heavy with pearls, the Shah advanced towards the Peacock Throne,” recorded the traveller Victoria Sackville-West. “European women curtsied to the ground; the men inclined themselves low on his passage; the mullahs shambled forward in a rapacious, propriety wave.”

“With his own hands he removed the cap from his head,” she wrote, “with his own hands he raised and assumed the crown”.

Eleven years after he coronated himself in December 1924, Iran’s King of Kings Reza Shah Pahlavi, the son of a conservative small landowner, ordered his women subjects to remove the hijab. The Kashf-e hijab decree was a critical moment in his effort to remake the country into a modern nation with a modern military, modern railways, modern banks, modern schools—and men in European-style caps.

Through the past week, the world has watched as dancing young women have tossed their veils into bonfires, while others defiantly cut their hair in public—a rebellion against the theocratic regime that forced women back into the hijab in 1979. At least 17 protestors have reportedly been shot dead in clashes with police while pro-hijab vigilantes have heckled and intimidated unveiled women.

Events in Iran aren’t, however, just driven by the desire for personal freedoms. The hijab is, instead, a metaphor for a bitter struggle that involves identity, the State, and social class. Although it is easy to claim Reza’s decree abolishing the veil was a moment of liberation for Iran’s women, their experience of Westernisation was unequal—and often traumatic.

The secret wars of women

Like many modernising societies, late 19th-century Iran depended on the unseen labour of women. Elite women might have lived in secluded polygamous families surrounded by children, eunuchs, and servants, but others supported their families as seamstresses, carpet weavers, domestic labourers, and even sex-workers. These two worlds were united, political scientist Hamideh Sedghi has observed in her superb history of women in Iranian politics, in seclusion: Women’s work was walled away.

Following a succession of military defeats, Iran’s Qajar monarchs were forced into iniquitous trade treaties with imperial Russia and Britain. Even as Iran’s peoples struggled with their impact, King Ahmad Shah sustained the monarchy by selling lands and royal concessions.

Later in the century, Sedghi observes, women began resisting the colonial-imposed order. The mosque often provided the foundation for their efforts. Led by Zinat Pasha, armed and veiled women from the city of Tabriz led protests against a tobacco monopoly granted to Britain in 1891. Anis al-Dowleh, King Naser al-Din Shah’s wife, is reputed to have fuelled the protests. Women played a key role in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution of Iran, forcing the establishment of a constitutional senate, the Majlis. “King of the Muslims,” they told the Shah, “if Russia and England support you, upon the orders of Muslim leaders, Iranians will declare jihad against you.”

Following Russia’s occupation of Iranian territory in 1911, the American lawyer Morgan Shuster recorded, 300 veiled women marched to the Majlis, armed with “pistols under their skirts or in the folds of their sleeves”.

Few gains, however, flowed to women from their efforts. The 1906 constitution mandated that all laws be compliant with the Sharia and the approval of the clergy—denying women the vote and a role in public life.

Also read: Unlike Karnataka hijab row, Iran’s goes beyond Islam. The regime is under attack

A centralised patriarchy

Liberal, King Reza wasn’t: When his daughter, Ashraf Pahlavi, wrote from Switzerland to ask for higher education abroad, something her twin brother was being given, she received a curt note demanding she “stop this nonsense and come home”. The King’s interest in Westernisation, however, was energetic in matters other than women. He insisted the royal family stopped using its hands to eat and ordered a court musician to Westernise local musical tunes. In 1927, men were instructed to replace traditional hats with French caps.

The King had little interest in the emancipation of women, but women’s bodies, and the veil, became a battleground for his efforts to centralise power in the crown. The process of unveiling, Sedghi has perceptively noted, transferred the “patriarchal power of the clergy to the State, and the State itself assumed the role of patriarch”.

Things began to come to a head during the Iranian New Year festival in 1928. That March, Queen Maryam Savadkoohi visited a shrine at Qom in what one cleric claimed was a semi-transparent chador. A furious Reza, historian Houchang Chehabi has written, “entered the shrine with his boots on, personally manhandled a number of seminarians and clerics, and had the cleric who had criticised the queen whipped”.

Later that year, men began receiving orders to allow Western attire—and police were ordered to ensure women could appear in public without a veil. The King was still cautious on the veil, though. During a 1929 State visit, while Afghan Queen Soraya Tarzi appeared unveiled, Queen Maryam chose not to directly face the Afghan King.

The gloves had come off, though. In 1935, the education minister was ordered to ensure girls did not veil in schools, while men were ordered to wear top hats.

Efforts to enforce the hat rules in the city of Mashhad led to savage violence in 1935, which led to the killing of over 100 protestors, but the King did not back down. The following year, he began pushing an ambitious programme of gender desegregation.

The impacts were sometimes tragi-comic: The writer Reza Baraheni wrote that his father used to carry his mother and wife to the public bath inside pistachio sacks. Elite men, faced with royal orders to host parties together with their spouses, contracted “temporary wives” for the sacrilegious task. Even as some Westernised Tehran families embraced desegregation, many pious women experienced unveiling almost in the way nudity might be today. Elsewhere, police cashed in on the rules to extort money, while some conservative families fled to Iraq.

King Reza was dethroned by the West in 1941, and his young son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi succeeded him. Like under his father, though, there were few real gains for women: From 1944 to 1952, three efforts were made to gain women the right to vote, and each was defeated.

Also read: Hijab, Rampuri dialect, Muslim irony—Instagram’s Bajis are flexing identity, shifting gaze

The revolution that wasn’t

Early in 1963, the new Shah launched what he called The White Revolution: A plan, The New York Times gushed, to lead Iran out of 2,500 years of “archaic stagnation”. The revolution centred around a populist programme of land redistribution and rapid industrialisation. In one speech, scholar Ali Ansari records, the Shah told Iranians “that you will have smart clothes, that you will have a nice house”. There was one more promise, though: The enfranchisement of the country’s women.

Large-scale protests broke out against the programme, with clerics adroitly using the issue of women to mobilise their conservative constituency against the Shah. Teachers, nurses, and women employees staged counter-protests. The Shah backed them, announcing he was “done with social and political parasites”.

The White Revolution, though, proved mythical. Expansive military and social spending drained the treasury. Agriculture and industry were crippled by the Shah’s attempted revolution. Elevated levels of employment, pumped up by State loans, created jobs but couldn’t compensate for stagnant living standards. A decadent, multi-million-dollar party thrown by the Shah in 1971 to celebrate the founding of the Persian empire crystallised the widespread revulsion.

For many women, the Shah’s promise of liberation also proved empty. For the most part, Sedghi has written, women workers continued to spend long hours in badly-paid jobs, commuting long distances. Zaqeh-neshin, or Tehran’s shanty-town residents, paid almost as much in rent as they made in wages, while the conditions of carpet weavers resembled those of the 19th century.

To some women, it appeared that God’s order might offer salvation. In 1979, hundreds of women lined up to chant slogans supporting the messianic Islamist leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “Death to the unveiled woman and her cowardly husband,” the slogans went, “Wear a veil or have your head kicked in.” The hijab became a potent symbol of the Islamic revolution—promising to overthrow a toxic process of Westernisation through sexual control.

Four decades on, Iran’s women are protesting again—this time, against a tyranny that rules over their sexuality and choices without delivering on its promises of equality and justice. The violence unleashed by hijab-enforcers of the Comite-he Gasht and the Amr-e be Ma’ruf va Nahi az Monker isn’t without legitimacy, though: For many, the lived experience of Westernisation meant injustice and subjugation.

To both its supporters and enemies, then, the hijab isn’t about personal choice: It is a symbol of fundamental political questions unresolved by a century of struggles.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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