TEHRAN – In Qom and Mashhad, the Shi’ite faith’s most sacred cities in Iran, they are enveloped in black from head to toe, any time, any where: it is unthinkable not to use the all-envelopingchador. In Tehran, while the clothing is still black, closer scrutiny reveals more: a pair of jeans, sneakers, red fingernails, a knockoff Prada backpack, lipstick, long eyelashes, flashy sunglasses, a whiff of French perfume, shiny black hair trying to break free from a colored scarf. Iranians may not even notice – although the guardians of Islamic morale flash red alerts. For a foreigner, exhausted of encounters with packs of black ghosts, it is like a vision of Heaven, like the first time Omar Khayyam – the poet and mathematician from Nishapur – saw his beloved Jahan.
The historically famed beauty of Persian women may still be a taboo subject in the Islamic Republic. Same with their brains. The three main forces of reform in post-Islamist Iran are intellectuals, women and the young population (60 percent of the total of 63 million). If you are a young intellectual woman – such as Noushin Ahmadi Khorassani – you are, from the point of view of the conservatives, a tremendous adversary.
Noushin works as an editor and also as the director of the women’s monthly Djens-e Dovom (“The Second Sex”). She is at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights in Iran – a struggle that has nothing to do with the 1960s and 1070s Western version.
Noushin considers that “Islamic women do not contest the principles of the revolution. On the contrary: they invoke Islam to denounce the injustice of a few laws which, according to them, misinterpret religious texts – like for instance the divorce law. They are in favor of a complementarity, not equality with men. They accept not being mixed – in the bus, in marriages, in gym classes. But they want the right to have access to the same functions and the same possibilities of leisure. They do not refuse to wear the Islamic veil, which they consider as a necessary protection to be accepted by men. It’s the price to pay to be recognized as human beings and not as objects of desire.”
These are the Islamic feminists. They may not be radicals – and they want to affirm their political participation within the system. There are now 11 women among the 290 members of parliament – ready to fight for women’s rights, but under the banner of Islam.
But especially in Tehran – with 12 million people, almost 20 percent of the whole population, and setting the tone for the whole country – what we increasingly see is another kind of woman. Noushin: “These lay women consider that equality with men should not be attained by sacrificing other values – like the freedom to wear what you want. Among most of the girls of the new generation, there is an enormous desire to get rid of the black coat and the scarf. Certainly there is a limitation. These women know there are more important rights to conquer than the right to go out in the streets with your head uncovered.”
Among the inequalities there is the question of inheritance, or the weight of a witness in court. “In both cases, the woman is worth only half, compared to a man.” Women in Iran may be increasingly active in their professional life: more than 50 percent of jobs in the public sector, and more than 40 percent of teachers. But they cannot get any job they want. They cannot be a judge. And they cannot even go to a soccer match: the stadia are a male privilege.
The women who lived through the revolution of 1979 carry an undeniably bitter experience: the regression of their juridical status compared to Iran under the Shah. The revolution in fact institutionalized total disparity between men and women in terms of fundamental rights such as divorce, inheritance or the role of witnesses in court. On the other hand, under the Shah, most women living in rural areas were illiterate.Today, they go to school just like their brothers, birth rates have been cut in half and the average age for getting married is 21 years old, compared to the previous 18.
Culturally, they have never been so equal to men. This evolution through a series of paradoxes has led many women to be fully aware of the injustices they face. Fatemah (not her real name) says, “I suffered a lot when I was a kid. I had long hair and could not understand why I had to stuff it under a piece of black cloth. But then I got used to it. Anyway, we don’t have a choice.” In the back seat of a shared taxi, a young sales rep in Tehran agrees, “To force women to wear the veil is like hiding the sun behind the clouds.” But in the same taxi, a young conservative woman talks for minutes on the necessity of the hejab (wearing a veil), “In Western countries, where women don’t wear the veil, they are abused by men. This destroys the character and morals of the woman, and leads society to ruin. While the woman is veiled, she is spared of great dangers. She can devote her time to study and work instead of wasting her time with make-up.”
Hours are, indeed, wasted – or not – in Tehran, a certified make-up heaven. In the famous “private clandestine parties” in northern Tehran – the upper middle class part of town – girls seem to have emerged from a Revlon or Shisheido ad.
When one is young and in love in Iran, the only solution may be to go to the park. For young girls these are sometimes the only available places to meet their boyfriends in a society that does not tolerate any relationship before marriage. But if you live in Tehran, you can always hit the Internet. There’s an astounding proliferation of Iranian chats on the net. It’s not about love though. It’s about sex – as the first three classic questions in these chats attest: Are you single, do you live in Tehran, where do we meet?
Young women know exactly what they don’t want. At Tehran University, Mila (not her real name) says, “They have now invented this term of ‘Islamic civil society’. This term does not mean anything in itself. Normally, in a civil society, there is no limit for individual freedom, while in an Islamic society freedoms are restricted.”
More and more young women are being mobilized by the lively Iranian women’s press. These magazines publish an avalanche of articles specialized not only in women’s rights and work discrimination but in family problems as well, such as divorce and child education.
The new generation is much more audacious than the women of the revolution, says Noushin. “They are not afraid to do their make-up in the street, to wear body-hugging coats, to talk directly to boys. They are not afraid of being arrested in private parties. They know that this can be arranged at best by a bribe, at worst by one or two nights in a police station. Those that went through the worst humiliations, like being beaten or facing a virginity control, are even more audacious. To face the moral brigade for them is a provocation, a challenge to the system.”
A student in Tehran makes the point, “We don’t give a damn to Islamic values. We grew up in a system full of restrictions, so we learned how to deal with it.” Noushin says that “most of the young girls live what they call a ‘double life’. There’s public space and private space. In the street, there is the hejab. At the house, it is the miniskirt.” It is perfectly normal to meet women in Tehran who during the day hold a government job, fully clad in their chadors, and who at night can be seen fully made up in a body-hugging minidresses.
“Until when can this contradictory system can last?”, asks Noushin. “There are more and more women dreaming of freedom, and this does not regard only the so-called ‘Westernized’ circles. Today, young women are fighting for their individuality. They have to oppose themselves to the regime, but also to the traditional weight of the family. Some extreme forms of behavior emerge from all this, like running away, or even suicide. There have been a lot more cases in these last few years.”
The Islamic State remains blind to this social convulsion. Why? Says Noushin, “Because they don’t have an answer to these contradictions. Accepting to see these problems would be accepting that the system of the Islamic Republic has failed.”