New Internationalist

Back to the Veil

Issue 091

Thousands of Iranian women took to the streets calling for a return to Islam. Now the mullahs are denying them rights which western women see as basic. Canadian reporter Carole Jerome was with Khomeini on his triumphant return to Tehran and met the women who flocked to greet him. She tells her story and draws her own conclusion that strict Islam and women’s liberation simply don’t go together.

Alain Mingam / Gamma
Out of the home and onto the streets. But is it liberation Alain Mingam / Gamma

THERE were a hundred and fifty journalists allowed to accompany Ayatollah Khomeini on the Air France 747 that carried him from exile in Paris to triumph in Tehran on February 1st 1979. Three of us were women. As we prepared to disembark after touchdown, we were told to cover our heads with scarves and keep them covered. So we emerged into the revolutionary sunlight with a cloud over our heads. Khomeini set up his first temporary headquarters in the old Refa School, right behind the Parliament buildings. Every day he or his lieutenants held press conferences. There too, female journalists were expected to wear headscarves. Two of us decided we’d had enough and, after a considerable row the mullahs it was agreed that a press conference would be declared international territory. We didn’t have to wear headscarves but we were requested to out of respect for the clergy present. We still objected, trying to explain that it was not out of disrespect, but our own self-respect. The mullahs were mystified. Outside, thousands upon thousands of black-veiled women lined up seven deep for hours upon hours for a glimpse of their saviour, Khomeini. The deputies in the besieged parliament could hear their continuous echoing chanting: Long Live Khomeini, Death to the Shah. On and on. As I wandered among them they smiled and waved and shouted more Long Live Khomeini’s. They also had a kind of catchy little song they sang that went Marg Bar Bahktiar, Da Da Da Dum De Da. Death to Bahktiar, the Prime Minister, they sang, as children sing Ring around the Rosy. As a mob, these women were strange and frightening to us. When I went up to talk with them individually, they were like women and schoolgirls anywhere in the world. They wanted to know where I came from, what I thought of Khomeini, what I thought of America, what my job was like. Some spoke a bit of English, others used smiles and sign language and vigorous nodding of heads. When they learned I had accompanied Khomeini, they were practically awe-struck.

Now I was mystified. While we were in there fighting for the right to shake loose our hair, these women were coming to worship the man who was putting them back into the folds of the black chador. Joyously, voluntarily they came.

Women had fought actively in the revolution. They smuggled guns hidden under the voluminous black robes. On Black Friday, they marched in the front ranks of an anti-Shah demonstration. They thought the Shah’s soldiers would not fire on women. They were gunned down.

Westerners are puzzled by this loyalty to a religion that we see as setting women back several centuries and hostility to a regime that was supposedly trying to give Iranian women freedom and equality.

The Shah made the same mistake in his efforts to liberate women as he had in his overall effort to modernize his nation. Like his father Reza Shah, he tried to go against the social attitudes and religious morality of centuries. The changes they brought about were not so much modernization as westernization.

Mansour Farhang, Iran’s present Ambassador to the UN, argues that while the Pahlavis did give women more legal rights, the Shah and Farah brought Iranian women the worst of western culture: all the neurosis of trying to look like Farah Fawcett-Majors or Jackie Kennedy. Iranian women just don’t look like Farah and never could. ‘But those were the models they were confronted with in all the women’s magazines,’ says Farhang. ‘Valium was an over-the-counter drug,’ he adds, ‘and sales to middle class women skyrocketed.’

Farhang is not a turbaned fanatic. He is a gentle and urbane man. He believes that Iranian women must be liberated, but in a manner that is in harmony with their own heritage, their culture, even their looks.

How, or if, that can be accomplished in an Islamic regime is the unanswered question.

The chador symbolises the root of the problem: original sin. Woman is the temptress who lures otherwise noble man down into the sensual mire. The doctrine is fundamental to attitudes toward women, in Islam as much as in Christianity. The veil covers the woman so the man will not be distracted. It’s seen as a kind of equaliser, neutralising the unfair advantage of her beauty. The chador is the flip side of the western sex kitten. Woman is either a sex object or a sex subject.

During a two-hour conversation with him at his home, Ayatollah Behesti, the powerful Justice Minister, never once looked me in the face. He answered all my questions, but addressed himself intently to the opposite wall. Asked why, he replied: ‘Because I have been taught all my life … never … to gaze … on a woman.’ Yet he declared that women have equal rights under Islam. ‘Equals who admire and respect one another look each other straight in the eye,’ I said. He smiled.

Unless that doctrine changes, all the laws and rights in the books will not make women equal in the eyes of men. And Khomeini shows no signs of tampering with the doctrine. In his writings he decrees that women must wear the veil.

For the time being a woman may walk unveiled in downtown Tehran without undue attention. I was often stopped and roughed up for taking photographs. But never for my lack of modesty. But in the bazaars or the slum areas, it is highly dangerous for a woman to go unveiled. More basic and summary laws rule there. And it is obligatory to wear the veil to enter a mosque.

My desire to see the wonders of the great Shah Mosque in Isfahan finally overcame my revulsion of the chador. So I donned my ‘black bag’, as the camera crew called it, and stepped through the portals beneath the minarets into an oasis of ancient beauty and sanctity. The delicate turquoise and white and gold mosaics of the arches was dazzling in the sunlight that filled the courtyard. As I walked across the empty space the soft folds of the chador billowed slightly in the breeze, and no longer felt humiliating. They felt scared. It was while I was wrestling with this new sensation that I came upon one of our drivers, returning along one of the small dark corridors behind the prayer hall. He had just finished his prayers.

He tried to kiss me and feel me up. In my sacred bag. It was ludicrous. And since you must hold the chador on with at least one hand, fending someone off is no mean feat. He gave up easily enough. But some things can’t be legislated away. Try as they might.

The Shah tried one way. But he himself never came to terms with women. After an interview with him in 1973, Oriana Fallaci wrote about the paradox of his attitudes: ‘He considers women simply as graceful ornaments, incapable of thinking like a man, and then strives to give them complete equality of rights and duties.’

Gamma
Flip side of the sex kitten Gamma

Khomeini gives them rights, but makes no pretence of equality. He has written that women have a right to education. But only under certain conditions. A woman can be taught by a man only if her face is covered, and all contact in the classroom is forbidden. ‘If contact is inevitable,’ declares Khomeini, ‘she must give up her studies.’ And the new constitution of the Islamic Republic gives sweeping powers to the clerical leadership of the nation. Women are excluded from the clergy by the Koran and by Khomeini. So why ‘oh why’ do so many thousands of Iran’s women support the Islamic regime? This was the question in my mind when a friend took me one night to a meeting of the Society of Islamic Revolutionary Women. The group is led by Azam Taleghani, the daughter of Ayatollah Taleghani, a church leader as popular and beloved as Khomeini. The meeting was in an ordinary apartment building in Tehran. As we entered I saw about twenty-five women sitting in a circle on the floor of a large room bare except for the beautiful Persian rug. All were wearing head scarves, pulled low over the forehead, to cover every strand of hair. Taleghani herself was draped in heavy black, a big woman with a plain, powerful face. She commanded attention. This was a campaign meeting, as she and several others were candidates for the new parliament.

The women in the group were intelligent and well-educated. Among them was Azam Taleglnani’s sister Vahideh, a doctor of psychology. And Akram Hari, who spoke with me in English, had earned her Masters in mathematics at the University of California. SAVAK dismissed her from the University of Tehran for political views, which she insisted on bringing into the classroom.

Hari believes fervently in a new society built on Islamic custom, and Koranic law. She finds woman’s place in that system perfectly satisfactory. The Prophet Mohammed recognized women as the partners of men and gave rights and respect beyond anything they had had in that part of the world. ‘If women are expected to cover themselves, this is a good thing,’ explains Hari. ‘It is to encourage modesty, to make women use their brains instead of exploiting their sexual attractiveness.’ But why aren’t the men required to be covered? ‘They are, but not so much as women, who have more sexual power.’

Hari believes that the role of childbearing is more important than any other in society, and that as mothers, women are the eternal flame of Islamic morality. She and the others want to combine that with a career, professional or political.

But in wearing the veil or even the headscarf, are they not accepting the doctrine that will ultimately block these ambitions? Mohammed gave women rights. But he did not give then equal rights, any more than Khomeini does.

Hari and the others were willing and anxious to discuss these issues with me. But they could not see the connection I see between the veil and inequality.

There are other women’s organizations that stand for a more rigorous roster of women’s rights. Right after the revolution they marched bareheaded in the streets and paraded in front of the President’s office demanding full freedom. They were attacked by militant Islamic men.

Such women are mainly of the middle class, the ones who were affected irreversibly - for better or worse - by the Shah’s western innovations. There are few outside Tehran. Iran is still largely a peasant country. The people live close to the land and the Koran. Both Westernization and Revolution passed over their heads like sandstorms in the centuries old desert. Khomeini came to save The Faith from the Shah, so the women flock to him in black robes they have worn for hundreds of years.

Their lives and laws are of another world and time than ours. This winter a young man killed his sister, claiming she was pregnant by one of the Americans now held hostage. She had shamed the family. The hostage, a marine named Michael Moeller, is alleged to have had an affair with the girl. Moeller is to go on trial. The brother is not.

But before we all go off feeling superior to these people that let brothers murder sisters, note that American concern has centred on the fate of Moeller. ‘The only thing that raises this above the level of a news dispatch,’ wrote Time Magazine, ‘is the fact that an American soldier may go on trial. The girl apparently doesn’t matter.’ Just a whore.

Which brings us back to original sin. As long as fear and loathing of the female lurks in the male psyche, equality is a myth. Simone de Beauvoir observed that from Cuba to Iran, women are promoted alongside men to do the dirty work of the revolution. Until it’s won. Then they’re demoted again. It’s at that moment of victory, she said, at a Paris rally in support of women’s rights in Iran, that the victory must not be lost.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Back to the Veil

Leave your comment