by Harry Tod
When discussing the politicisation of the veil throughout history, few cases have attracted as much attention as Iran. Sartorial and religious discourses concerning veiling in Iran have typically examined its use in the context of a conflict between traditionalist and modernist groups. However, Iranian women of different classes also utilised the veil to promote individual class interests. The traditional middle class used the veil as a way of promoting their Islamic and anti-imperialist identity. Modern middle-class women used the veil to protest imperialism, but also to promote emancipation. Working class women used the veil practically to attain employment and financial security.
Traditional middle-class women utilised the veil symbolically to support their Islamic and anti-imperial class interests. Modern Iran has two types of middle class –traditionalist and modern. While the latter arose in the 20th century, the former existed in pre-modern Iran. The traditional middle class consisted of urban-dwelling traders, known as ‘Bazaari,’ and clergymen, who enjoyed a deeply-rooted mutual relationship. Both elements opposed the Pahlavi regime’s ‘imperialist,’ reformist agenda, which challenged the credibility of Islam within Iran as much as it did the market for the Bazaari’s artisan and traditional products. Their class interests were therefore rooted in an idea of ‘anti-imperialism’ and the promotion of Islamic values.
Tied closely to the identity of this class was the veil, especially the all-encompassing chador. Traditionalist women donned the chador as a way of showing their Islamic authenticity, with veiling practices deeply tied to a sense of morality. Public unveiling carried the weight of shame and dishonour, inflicting so much trauma that it occasionally resulted in suicide. Hence, when Reza Shah outlawed the veil, women within this class would refuse to show themselves publicly, greatly impacting their ability to engage in society and even receive an education. Later, while Mohammad Reza Shah made veiling optional, its application was socially discouraged, making it de facto illegal. The Pahlavi regimes’ suppression of Islamic identities contributed to a sense of vengefulness among traditionalist Iranian women, positioning Iran for an Islamic revival.
The symbolic use of the veil in protest emerged in response to the writings of Ali Shariati – a devout Iranian sociologist – especially in his book Fatima is Fatima. In this, he appeals to the tortures endured by traditionalist women by proposing a return to traditionalism. He describes a woman that embodies this, ‘Fatemeh,’ who is:
“…the woman that Islam wants a woman to be. The concept of her visage is painted by the Prophet himself. He melted her and made her pure in the fire of difficulties, poverty, deep understanding and the wonder of humanity.”
Shariati’s work was a call-to-arms for traditional women to embrace their Islamic ‘authenticity,’ reject the trauma inflicted by forced unveiling and the suppression of Islam, and fight against ‘westernised,’ imperialist Iran. This led to a resurgence in Islam among the traditional middle class, which transformed the veil from “a symbol of seclusion and backwardness” into a symbol of resistance. Importantly, the veil was utilised as a way for these women to regain their Islamic identity and attach socio-political power to it. Iranian Poet Tahereh Saffarzadeh, a member of this traditionalist middle class, was greatly influenced by Shariati. Her prescription of traditional Islam as a remedy for socio-political problems was expressed in her work The Fifth Journey:
“The Pure sound of the azan is heard
and he walks toward a great prayer
and all of us walk with him
in the courtyard
a courtyard of equality and justice.”
Poems like this, which tied justice and equality with Islamic purity, were representative of the Islamic revival which took place in this class during the late 60s and 70s. The chador’s symbolic and political use intensified in 1977 as anti-Shah protests began to form. In both peaceful and armed protests, the chador was worn by traditional middle-class women, as well as women from other classes, as a symbol of solidarity.
As can be seen in the photo Khomeyni Arrives (featured image), the frame is dominated by chador-clad women showing support for Ayatollah Khomeini – a traditionalist revolutionary figure who was exiled from Iran for more than a decade. Such unified action – with the veil at its centre – was a primary reason behind the revolution’s success. So significant was the veil’s symbolic and practical value to the revolution and to the new theocracy, that unveiling was quickly deemed to be imperialist and a threat to the new Islamic Republic. State-mandated veiling began in 1980 as a way to maintain the regime’s ideological hegemony, with Fatemeh becoming an institutionalised model for female behaviour. Tied to this, the chador represented piety and an anti-imperialist sentiment, and its use was a necessary condition for Iranian women who desired social inclusion. In short, the veil was used by traditional middle-class women as a way of promoting their Islamic, anti-imperial class interests.
Modern middle-class women also employed the veil to promote their emancipatory and anti-imperial class interests. Unlike the traditionalists, the modern middle class emerged from Iran’s exposure to European philosophy and social practices. Women in this class were typically younger, more likely to seek employment, and were more likely to travel and pursue university education. This class became populated during the Pahlavi regime, as it embodied the European and North American ideals that were deemed necessary for Iran’s modernisation. Its socio-political interests were indeed served by the Pahlavi regime through the Family Protection Laws of 1967 and 1975, as well as through increased literacy, education and employment opportunities for women.
However, beyond these interests, members of this class were also concerned with socio-political freedoms and gender equality. In the 1960s the class saw an explosion in population as higher education rates led to greater participation in international student movements. Shadowing feminist and civil rights movements abroad, the class pursued women’s liberation by demanding a disassembly of Iran’s patriarchal monarchy and gender equality in employment, politics, and education. Additionally, the class was opposed to the Shah’s corruption and elitism, as well as to his association with the ‘imperialist’ United States, which was encompassed under an ‘anti-imperialist’ agenda. This sentiment was exacerbated as outspoken activists in the class were imprisoned and tortured for criticising the class. The anti-imperialist interests of the two middle classes caused a merger of interests, despite their conflicting interests on gender issues.
Nevertheless, when protests began in 1977, women within this class donned the veil as a sign of solidarity with the traditional protesters. While the veil was considered by many in the class to be a symbol of oppression, it was adopted to increase the strength of the revolution. This unified support, caused by merged class interests, was a primary reason for the revolution’s success. However, immediately following the revolution Khomeini betrayed their interests by making veiling mandatory and refusing to institutionalise gender equality, leading to women in this class unveiling to protest the regime they had just supported. The complex situation was summarised by one Iranian student nurse, who describes:
“When our revolution started, the whole nation struggled for freedom, against dictatorship, against American imperialism. Men and women protested together to support the political claims in unity… But since last Thursday the religious people are making waves. For days we are protesting in the streets and proclaim that we do not want to wear the veil… We are fighting for our rights. We want equality.”
Within this, she identifies the two interests of her class and how both regimes conflicted in part with these interests. On one hand she donned the veil to protest ‘imperialism’ under the Shah, and on the other hand she removed the veil to protest gender inequality under the Ayatollah. This sentiment was clearly expressed by thousands of other women in this class, who spontaneously took to the streets to protest mandatory veiling in March 1979. Iranian Photographer Hengameh Golestan, in her Witness 1979 series, shows unveiled Iranian women wearing European-style clothing protesting in the streets.
Importantly, not all protesters had unveiled, with some more religious members of the class still wearing the veil while protesting compulsory veiling. Nonetheless, the class utilised the lack of the veil symbolically to promote their class interests of freedom and women’s emancipation.
These protests, however, could not overrule the new veiling laws. In the new Islamic Republic, it was not only impossible for an unveiled woman to attain employment, education or access the political sphere, but it would become dangerous to appear in public unveiled. These realities are shown in Marjane Satarap’s Persepolis, wherein she describes how an unveiled protest was violently disbanded by a group of traditionalists, and how the veil became mandatory in school. Anti-regime activism was not entirely suppressed because of coercion, however. Satarap describes how women instead adopted more subtle forms of protest, such as by not wearing a chador and “by letting a few strands of hair show.” Additionally, Shirazi explains how women in this class wore different colour veils and wore makeup – largely forbidden in Iran – to protest the state. These subtle actions show how women used the veil symbolically to promote their class aims, even in austere social conditions. It is clear then that both before and after the Iranian Revolution, the veil was symbolically utilised by modern middle-class women to promote their anti-imperialist and emancipatory class interests.
Unlike those in the middle class, working class women used the veil as a practical way to access employment. To them, the veil was a pragmatic rather than a symbolic tool – with unveiling and veiling being used as a way to attain employment in order to survive. Extremely low minimum wages forced working-class Iranian women to work six to seven days a week in order to survive. Working-class women primarily worked in agriculture, manufacturing, as Dallaks (bathing attendants and masseuses), as band-andaz (threaders), and for some, as prostitutes. For them, veiling or unveiling was done practically to attain employment, which was their main class interest. While some members of the class were devout, low wages for both men and women necessitated financial security and employment for survival. Employment for working class women thus trumped religious interests, which would otherwise obviate the need for women to work.
Following the Islamic Revolution, women were mostly forced out of agricultural and manufacturing jobs. However, new employment opportunities were also created for working class women. By donning the chador, the working class could have access to the political sphere as well as to more jobs – including the armed forces. The Women’s Basij Organisation (WBO) – a revolutionary militia founded in 1979 – was largely composed of lower-class, uneducated women. This organisation gave devout lower-class women the ability to attain both an education and to be in positions of responsibility, but importantly higher-paid employment. Chador-clad members of the WBO are seen in a photograph by photojournalist ‘Abbas’ receiving firearms training – encapsulating the character of this new occupation. In addition to this, lower-class women shifted into teaching jobs, which became more available in post-revolutionary Iran. In these professions, the chador was used by working class women practically to gain access to employment and education, showing its practical use.
However, not all working-class women were able or lucky enough to access these jobs. Others, especially rural woman forced into urban areas, became prostitutes to supplement household income, with unveiling obviously being a critical aspect of this profession. Prostitution existed in both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, but was illegal and especially dangerous in the Islamic Republic. The prioritisation of employment over all other interests is represented in Moslem Mansouri’s documentary Epitaph, which covers the subject of prostitution in modern Iran. Interviews from the documentary present a common theme of desperation, with even religious women revealing themselves in order to financially support themselves and their families. One woman explains: “God knows, sometimes when I go out, I pray to God to help me… telling the one who picks me up that I need just the money.” This indicates how some working-class women unveiled, despite religious interests, to earn money, further showing the practical treatment of the veil by women in this class. Overall, the veil was practically utilised by working-class women to attain employment – their primary class interest.
Women belonging to different classes in Iran used the veil either symbolically or practically as a way of achieving their class interests. In the middle class the veil was used symbolically by both the traditional and modern strata. While both sections used the veil to support their shared anti-imperialist interests, devout traditional women used it to promote Islamic hegemony whereas secular modern women used it to protest hegemony and promote emancipation. Meanwhile in the working class, the veil was used practically following the Iranian Revolution to attain employment. In these ways, class can be used to explain the variable use of the veil in Cold War Iran.
Abbas. Khomeyni Arrives. 1989. Photograph. Artstor, https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/AMAGNUMIG_10311566332.
Abbas, Veiled women of the revolutionary militia get military training with guns. 1979. Photograph. Artstor, https://library.artstor.org/asset/AMAGNUMIG_10311567788
Epitaph. Directed by Moslem Mansouri. 2002, Canada: Culture Unplugged, 2002, https://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/4697/Epitaph
Golestan, Hengameh. Untitled (Witness 1979). March 11 1979. Photograph, 1000x682px. Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art, https://asia.si.edu/exhibition/hengameh-golestan/#jp-carousel-516062.
Mouvement de libération des femmes iraniennes année zero. Directed by Sylvina Boissonnas and Claudine Mulard. 1979: Paris: des femmes filment, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulJwXHji6f4
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Appendix A – Abbas, Khomeyni Arrives, 1979.
Appendix B – Hengameh, Untitled (Witness 1979), 1979.
Appendix C – Abbas, Veiled women of the revolutionary militia, 1979.