Iran and the Veil

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Photo from Tehran by Farhad Rajabali, via Flickr

The photos coming out of Tehran demonstrate, movingly and beautifully, that women are on the front lines of the protests taking place there, veils and all. The images reminded me of President Obama's focus on the hijab during his June 4 Middle East policy speech from Cairo. Obama chose the issue because it was one on which he could forge an alliance with moderate and conservative Islamists at the expense of our traditional allies in Western Europe. "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal," he said.

Yet the photos show, quite clearly, that women are chafing against the limitations of the veil. Look how far back they push the scarves; under an "equal" system, is there any doubt these women would be ripping the veils from their heads? That's not to deny that many women do wear the hijab gladly, even in Iran. But by hailing the supposed "choice" involved, we provide cover for authoritarian regimes, like Iran's, that really don't want to provide women with any choice at all in the matter. If anything, the focus on the hijab has often served as a distraction from the underlying oppression the veil represents. As Iranian sociologist Fatemeh Sadeghi wrote in a widely circulated 2008 essay, “Why We Say No to Forced Hijab,” the veil has "nothing to do with morality and religion. It is all about power."

And the fact is that women have very little power under Iranian law. They cannot run for president. If they ask for a divorce, they are highly unlikely to win any subsequent custody battle. Polygamy is legal and was even encouraged by the Ahmadinejad regime as an antidote to female unemployment! Only 13 percent of women participate in the paid work force, compared to over 25 percent in Turkey and over 38 percent in Indonesia. With the permission of a court, fathers can even arrange marriages for daughters under age 13. And in the past year, feminist movement leaders have been arrested and jailed by the regime.

Neo-conservatives have often used women's rights as a justification for ill-conceived U.S. military interventions abroad. Yet in Iran this week, we are getting a look at what a real, homegrown feminist movement looks like. American policy-makers from both the left and right should be paying attention. We owe these women support and admiration — not condescension.

For further reading: Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, by Janet Afary, and the latest issue of the Middle East Report

cross-posted at TAPPED

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