In a nation where police arrest, interrogate and force women to make public apologies for posting “un-Islamic” selfies and “promiscuous” videos of themselves dancing on Instagram, 19-year-old Kimia Naderzadeh is not interested in testing the limits of laws that clearly treat her as vastly inferior to a man.
Like millions of other Islamic women in Iran, Naderzadeh, a makeup artist and model, grudgingly accepts she must follow strict rules that dictate how she lives her life, down to the clothing she can wear in public. She wears the mandatory hijab, a headscarf that hides her hair and neck, in keeping with the teachings of the Muslim faith and the Quran.
“Some people in our society believe that if there was total freedom for women we would just walk in the street naked. That is nonsense,” she said. “However, the rules for women are clear, and we are adapting to them, coping with them and even accepting them.”
Miniskirts, shorts, tight jeans and even bikinis were once highly fashionable for women in Iran under the last monarch nearly four decades ago. Yet since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, women’s rights have been severely circumscribed, including how they choose to dress.
These can be formal legal restrictions such as wearing the hijab in all public places, a requirement enforced by tens of thousands of “morality police” as part of Islam’s strict modesty requirement. They can also be cultural and social prohibitions that have no specific relation to government diktat and are therefore applied unevenly.
Among the rules imposed on Iran’s 40 million women:
The husband is the head of the family, and his wife is legally bound to obey him.
A married woman cannot leave the country without her husband’s permission.
Polygamy and “temporary marriage,” which give unmarried men the right to have as many sexual partners as they wish, are allowed for men but not for women.
In a legal dispute, a woman’s testimony as a witness is worth half that of a man’s.
Those found guilty of disobeying these laws and guidelines can escape with a small fine. Or they can be given a lengthy jail term. Iran’s morality police routinely detain young, unmarried women for holding hands with a man in public, for appearing to be on a date or for associating with a man with whom they are not related.
When a USA TODAY reporter encountered Naderzadeh, she was sitting on a bench with her cousin in the middle of a popular pedestrian thoroughfare in Isfahan, a city of 1.8 million people nearly 300 miles south of Tehran that was Persia’s capital from 1598 to 1722. Isfahan is renowned for its stunning Islamic architecture and the grandeur of its fountains and gardens.
Naderzadeh’s hijab was clearly visible on the top of her head and across her upper body. But in keeping with the apparent preference of many young women in Iran these days, she had fastened it in a casually stylish manner that revealed two-thirds of her hair. Naderzadeh wore trendy, cropped black leggings and sandals. She had applied a heavy layer of foundation, eye shadow and lipstick. Bright pink polish was painted on her fingernails, white on her toenails. Her hijab was emblazoned with a Fendi logo, after the luxury Italian fashion house. In one hand, she held a large iPhone that was open to her Instagram page.
“I am mostly annoyed about wearing the hijab in the heat,” she said. “It’s a constant struggle to keep it fixed properly in place. However, we have to observe the rules.”
Fatemeh Sahari, 18, who is preparing to be an art major in college and was sitting with a friend sketching under Isfahan’s well-known Siosepol Bridge, agreed.
“Showing off your beauty doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to show off all your hair, maybe just a little part of it to highlight the color in your face,” she said. “We really think we women are beautiful enough even with the hijab on our heads.”
Sahari’s hijab obscured most of her hair apart from a small section of bangs, which she had swept to one side. Her friend Zahra Salehian, also 18, who wants to be an English major in college, was dressed in a black chador, a veil that enveloped her body from head to foot.
“Some women in Iran don’t think the hijab is very important, but actually it really is,” Salehian said. “It’s been directly advised by the prophet (Mohammad, the founder of Islam), so it’s really necessary. We actually like it, as long as it’s not too tight.”
It’s not an opinion shared by everyone.
Iranians have become adept at circumventing some of the restrictions on women, partly because the rules are fundamentally vague and open to interpretation, partly because the government does, in some instances, appear to tolerate dissent, and partly because some Iranians are willing to risk incarceration for social justice or for their own pleasure.
A young couple a USA TODAY reporter met in a cafe spoke of how they had recently traveled to a remote rural location in northern Iran for a weekend of secret nude sunbathing, an extremely serious transgression here. Several of their friends in the cafe confirmed the clandestine trip. The couple’s identity has been withheld for their safety.
“In Iran, the safest place in the country is your home. It’s a place where we can do anything we want,” the man, 26, said. “In my mind, I don’t think of myself as living in a Muslim country. I am a good person. I want to live right. I also want have fun.”
His girlfriend, 25, said she often lies to her parents about where she is when she is with her boyfriend. “They think I am at work or visiting with friends who are girls,” she said, suddenly taking off her hijab. “I don’t like it. I remove it when I can, and if someone challenges me, I simply say: ‘Oops, it fell off. I didn’t notice. So sorry!’ That’s usually enough to be left alone.”
‘Not passive in the face of the inequality’
In May, Shaparak Shajarizadeh, an activist who took off her headscarf while standing on a traffic island in central Tehran to protest Iran’s compulsory hijab law, was sentenced to two years in prison. She received an additional 18-year suspended sentence designed to ensure her silence. Shajarizadeh subsequently fled Iran.
“The brutal men of the regime seem to be particularly terrified by Iranian women who are demanding their rights,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech in May at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
“As human beings with inherent dignity and inalienable rights, the women of Iran deserve the same freedoms the men of Iran possess,” he said.
In June, Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer who has been defending several women protesting the hijab, was detained and imprisoned for five years. In July, Maedeh Hojabri, an Iranian teenager who had amassed thousands of followers on Instagram with videos of herself dancing to Iranian and Western pop music, was arrested. Her apparent confession was later broadcast on state TV.
Still, for Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an Iranian-American who runs Bourse & Bazaar, a London-based media company focused on Iran’s economy, Pompeo’s characterization – and politicization – of the situation for women’s rights in Iran is not helpful.
“Iranian women are just not passive in the face of the inequality all around them,” he said, noting that during this summer’s World Cup in Russia, Iranian women were allowed into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium for the first time in 37 years to cheer on Iran’s national men’s soccer team against Spain on television. While women are not allowed to enter stadiums in Iran or gather with men in public places to watch sporting events, they are able to play sports like soccer and volleyball. They must wear a hijab.
Batmanghelidj said more women in Iran are employed in leadership positions in business and politics than ever before. He noted that a recent study by IranTalent, an Iranian jobs website, found that about 17 percent of senior managers at large companies in Iran are women. In the United States, it is about 22 percent, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center.
Iran, however, ranked near the bottom (140 out of 144 countries) in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender report, a survey that includes “economic opportunity and participation” for women.
Batmanghelidj added that there is a lack of understanding outside Iran “of the myriad ways in which women have been able to push for greater representation in the workforce and in politics, and in Iran’s cultural and social fabric more generally. A lot of (women’s rights) activists will say that things are going slower than they hoped, but they have been very persistent and that deserves to be recognized. And these debates are very commonplace inside Iran. They take place in the newspapers, in the coffee shops and in Iran’s Parliament.”
While no woman can run for president and the supreme leader must be male, the country does have 17 female lawmakers in the 290-member parliament, the largest number since the 1979 revolution. In comparison, more than 80 women serve in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives.
Many other Iranian women head private businesses, including pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, importers of consumer goods, and public relations and marketing firms.
In addition, for the first time, a woman heads Iran Air, the country’s national airline carrier, and the National Carpet Center, a state-affiliated organization that represents Iran’s important Persian rug industry. Women have also made major advancements in high tech and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math education) fields, said Barbara Slavin, a former USA TODAY journalist who traveled to Iran many times and is now director of the think tank Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
Women “are an important voice (in Iran) when it comes to a variety of issues, not just those regarding women’s rights and family issues,” she said, noting that Iran has several female ambassadors and that a female vice president (for legal affairs) recently accompanied Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on a trip to Europe to discuss how to salvage the Iran nuclear deal that President Donald Trump’s administration has decided to withdraw from.
But for Tahmineh Milani, 57, an acclaimed Iranian movie director who has spent time in prison for expressing her ideas about the 1979 cultural revolution, the pace of change is not quick enough.
Milani has wanted to talk about domestic violence in her movies. The authorities have put up a lot of obstacles – for example, by denying permits. “The authorities don’t want to let us make films about women’s rights,” she said. “We are used to it. We are fighters.”
Source » usatoday