Narrating Iran’s Political History Through Its Women’s Bodies

Sometime before the emergence of the modern state system, there existed an organic society within the great Persian Empire. And within that organic society existed an organic debate on the veil – the female headscarf. Historians have recorded that female hair, in multiple pre-modern societies was somehow connected with female sexuality. The end result was a collective emergence to a similar conclusion; that female hair should be covered. The logic behind covering female hair in cultures that had already sexualized female hair was analogous to covering private areas in an attempt to not flaunt sexuality. Interestingly, in societies where women did start covering their hair, the veil itself became a symbol of femininity and sexuality now. The implication being that veiled female hair was actually worth covering, indicating the promise of physical attractiveness. Soon those societies started associating the veil with notions of ‘womanhood’, ‘coming of age’, and ‘attractiveness’. A couple of generations later, partially concealed hair emerged as the most potent symbol of femininity. The idea was that the visible portion of the woman’s hair was thought to be biologically attractive- an argument internalized over generations of normalizing the veil – and the veiled part was thought to be culturally attractive – a performative act of female conformity to the values of a traditional society.

As the concept of the veil spread and stuck in Iranian culture in a pre-modern society, another new association emerged. One that connected the concept of the veil itself with that of ‘knowledge’, ‘education’ and ultimately ‘class’. Soon, the women who concealed their hair were viewed as more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, and of higher class. The veil had emerged as a major rank indicator. In fact, so much so that it was incorporated into the Law. It became illegal for women of the lower class, peasant women, and prostitutes to wear the veil, to maintain the accuracy of the veil in reflecting economic and social status.

With the spread of Islam across Iranian culture, there isn’t evidence that indicates any major resistance to the faith element that was added to the veil equation. This is because the overwhelming majority of the world’s females were already concealing some portion of their hair. All the questions that are raised in Muslim circles today about what the veil actually means, what the correct format of it is and how crucial it is didn’t seem to bother the women of Iran at all at that time. This indicates just how organic the concept of the veil was to a lot of societies, including the Iranian one.

Fast-forwarding into modern Iranian history, a new chapter was written in the story of the veil under the Pahlavi Dynasty – the successor of the Qajar Dynasty that ruled Iran from 1925 to 1979. Under the reign of the first Shah in the Pahlavi Dynasty – Reza Shah – commercial flights into and out of Iran began. By the late 1920s, Iran was operating flights into and out of regional destinations such as Cairo, Baghdad, and Tel Aviv. It soon included international destinations into Europe. Europe made quite an impression on the wealthy Iranians who traveled to it. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Iranians who did travel into Europe for work, education, and vacation purposes were men. These educated, wealthy men found themselves in a society where women didn’t exhibit different shades of concealment. Furthermore, scholarly records emphasize the extent of their infatuation by European models who appeared in advertisements, as opposed to the average women in European societies. This makes it difficult to claim that there was any intellectual depth of analysis on the veil that these early Iranian reformists made. It wasn’t a matter of diffusion of the values of modern European society, nor was it a particular interest in scientific evidence to replace religious ideology; it was simply a matter of attraction to the European model. With that, the traveling reformists wanted to create a new association to the veil; that of backwardness. This new association was picked up by no other than the Shah himself. An unsurprising fact given the context of his accession to the throne that involved British support. The Shah’s grand vision was pulling his people into modernization, through forced secularization. His policies were largely meant to be modeled after Ataturk’s aggressive forced modernization and forced secularization policies. To Reza Shah, veiled women symbolized backwardness, subordination, and simply unattractiveness. Not to mention that they also symbolized anti-secularism to the Shah and hence were a direct threat to his grand vision. The Shah decided the veil was a problem of a national scale that required immediate and possibly extreme policies.

On January 7, 1936, the Shah announced a national mandatory ‘unveiling day’ – a day where women of the country need to abolish their veils. The day was marketed as a triumph of modernization over backwardness and was branded ceremoniously as ‘kashf e hejab’. Women were encouraged to dramatically discard their veils enacting a national victory on the forces of tradition and backwardness. On Kashf e hejab, the police was mobilized throughout the streets of Iran to ensure compliance with the new mandatory unveiling. Their job was to forcefully pull out the veil from women who didn’t get the memo. All institutions were asked to cooperate with the enforcement of the new illegality of the veil; disallowing veiled women to enter shops, attend school, or work. After the Kashf e hejab spectacle, the veiled women of Iran who weren’t ready to discard their veils and to whom the snatching off their veils was a major religious offense simply didn’t leave their houses and communities. Here is where the previously imagined association of veiled women as ‘less educated’ and of ‘lower class’ were actually realized. Veiled women simply didn’t have access to the wider national community, which structurally disadvantaged them. The good news was that did not last too long. When Mohammad Reza Shah took over from his father, the vision changed. Even though Mohammad Reza Shah was still interested in modernizing and secularizing Iranian society, he didn’t feel the need to put the same emphasis on the image of Iranian women. Hence, he quickly abolished the illegality of the veil. As soon as the veil became legal again, a significant portion of Iranian women instantly re-veiled. Even though the legal measures were softened, the systematic favoritism of unveiled women persisted.

Meanwhile, Islamist movements across the region were attempting to revive the Islamic identity. One of the main challenges for these movements was the appropriate role of women in society. Soon tremendous debate sparked on all issues concerning women within Islamic circles. People were trying to reconcile Islam and modernity. The veil took center stage. Society debated the interpretation and applicability of the veil; what is truly mandatory? Is it applicable in modern times? Is the hijab a literal prescription or does it simply mean not flaunting sexuality (or tabaruj)? What is a proper hijab; is it a headscarf, is it a chador or is it a purdah system?

By the time the Islamic revolution that toppled the Pahlavi dynasty swept through Iran, all the visions of the past were theatrically discarded. Yet, what stayed is the importance allocated to the way the women looked in Iran. The veil was now the law. All women above 9 years old were expected to be properly concealed. Even religious minorities were now expected to look like the ideal Muslim woman, according to the new regime. Any show of hair was punishable by 74 lashes. Once again, the police was mobilized into the streets of Iran to ensure proper compliance with the new law. In fact, a very large part of being a policeman in Iran suddenly became the scanning of women in search of any stray strands of hair. With the election of the moderate Khatami, the dress code was visibly softened. The Khatami regime showed higher levels of tolerance to violating the color code, wearing sandals that revealed bare feet and partially concealed hair.

It is unclear where the story of the veil will go from here in Iran. What is clear is that the forces of modernization, secularization and Islamization have all violated the rights of Iranian women. They used them as billboard signs to shout out the new political ideology of the state, making Iran possibly the only country in the world where a visual inspection of its women can reveal its entire history and present. Leaving only one question to ask; will they also be able to tell us the future?

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