hijab and chador notwithstansdaning Iranian women have carved out a space for themsleves in the society
Issue Date: Sunday, September 11, 2005
Hijab and chador notwithstanding, Iranian women have carved out a space for themselves in society, writes Shubha Singh
What lies beneath: Many Iranian women, like award-winning filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf (above), have overcome the restrictions of a conservative society to succeed in their chosen field
Why Iran, asked friends and relatives. Why should a group of women journalists decide to go on a busman’s holiday to Iran of all places? “You will have to cover your heads and won't be allowed to talk to men,” exclaimed a colleague.
Iranian embassy officials were equally curious. The usual reasons were trotted out — it is an unlikely destination for a holiday with the family, but it is of interest to journalists as an important country in India’s neighbourhood. The visas finally arrived, just as we were giving up hope, and were accompanied by elaborate instructions — heads had to be covered with no hair showing, long dresses to cover the wrists and ankles, and toes to be hidden inside shoes and socks.
As the privately-owned Mahan Airlines Airbus began descending at Tehran airport, the group of chattering journalists seated in the front of the plane whipped out thick cotton dupattas to wrap around themselves. It is amazing what a bit of cloth enveloping the face can do for one’s appearance —14 journalists — the pretty young women, the fiery investigative journalists, the self-possessed senior editors — were suddenly converted into a bunch of dowdy women under the charge of a minder.
It took us a couple of days to take in the sights of Tehran, with its vibrant young women striding confidently in their manteaus (knee-length coats in different colours) looking more stylish than confined by their clothes. We felt constricted in our all-encompassing dupattas in the hot Iranian summer and designated one member of our party to keep a check on slipping headscarves. We were circumspect and greeted the spokesman of the Foreign Office with a namaste or a bob of the head to avoid shaking hands with him. But looking at the Iranian women, we came to realise that life was much more relaxed than we were led to believe.
The tales of a conservative society and stern moral policing in public places give the impression that Iranian streets would be gloomy with serious-looking people going about their business, sans any tinge of frivolity. But the bazaars and parks in Iranian towns are vibrant and bustling. Groups of bright-eyed young girls with modishly highlighted hair peeking out from beneath their scarves can be seen promenading the parks in the evening or strolling along the streets in the market. But segregation exists everywhere outside the home — in buses, schools, gyms — and officially, a woman can be seen in a public place accompanied only by her father or brother.
The restrictions on women have eased in the past few years, and chador-clad women are now a minority in public places among the brightly-dressed younger women. But the women in black chadors do not look submissive or self-effacing. Middle-aged Soraya, who is bringing up her three children alone, explains, “The hijab protects me. I do not find it confining, I can wear it and go out to work in an office.” Women in government offices or in places where they have to deal with the public tend to wear the chador.
Iran has a huge population of young people, with 70 per cent of its population below 30 years of age. A large section of the young belongs to the post-Islamic Revolution generation that wants greater social freedom. The manteau and scarf ensemble is only for the outdoors; inside the homes, make-up, jewellery and hi-fashion take over. The boutiques carry revealing dresses and short tops with spaghetti straps, all of which are worn at home or under the chador while going out for a party.
For a conservative society that officially confines women to a subsidiary role, Iranian women have been able to carve out a space for themselves in a variety of spheres, from being internationally acclaimed filmmakers, writers and journalists to racing drivers, bureaucrats, politicians and entrepreneurs. During the eight-year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s with its heavy casualties, women came out of their homes to take up jobs. According to official statistics, there are about two million women in economically productive work. But institutionalised discrimination is a part of the Iranian way of life; women earn less than men for the same job. Over 65 per cent of university students are women, but most find it difficult to get well-paying jobs.
Many Iranian women are enterprising about choosing different careers. Noushen Najafi is a photographer and likes to take pictures of street scenes of Iran. Says Noushen, “I want to be a community photographer, not a photojournalist. I want to document Iranian life through photographs.” She travels alone in the countryside. Nagme works in an office, but is keen to find work with better prospects. She visits the main tourist spots in Tehran twice a week to meet people and practise speaking English. “I would like to get a job as an interpreter, so I like to talk to foreigners,” she said.
In a country where there is no freedom of speech, people turn to different means to express themselves. The Internet provides a new medium for information and expression in Iran. There are about 75,000 Iranian bloggers, Farsi is said to be the third most popular language for blogging and a sizeable number of bloggers are women. The blogs provide a virtual dialogue for young Iranians; it is a lively forum for passionate discussion where topics range from political commentary to make-up and ways of avoiding rules. But it is not without risk. Last year, five bloggers were arrested as part of a crackdown, and the government routinely blocks some websites for their subversive views. Zahra explained, “We have to keep trying to find ways to get our freedom. Sometimes some things are allowed, so we keep trying. I spend at least two hours on the Net every day.”
Iranians have a deep pride in their ancient, pre-Islamic cultural heritage. There is also a strong sense in the country of being misunderstood by the world outside. They want the richness of their history and cultural traditions acknowledged and respected. Iranians also love to talk and foreigners find themselves being greeted with smiles and a desire to chat. And there is special warmth for visitors from India. Several times, men and women stopped us as we travelled to the historic cities of Shiraz, Yazd and Isfahan to ask if we were from “al Hind”.
At the spectacular ruins of the 2500-year-old palace of Persepolis, a young student, Umaid, laughed with pleasure at hearing that his name ‘umeed’ or hope is a commonly used word in India. He is an avid fan of Hindi films and Hrithik Roshan is his favourite star. An elderly woman at the tomb of Iran’s 14th century Sufi poet, Hafez, hugged and thanked us for visiting Iran. Her response to us was symbolic of the special closeness and warmth that ordinary Iranians display towards Indian visitors.
Shubha Singh is a senior freelance journalist based in New Delhi.