Saturday, July 12, 2008

Good Hejab by Choice

One of the first questions raised by Iranian women when Khomeini first appeared was if the Islamic hejab was going to be mandatory. Imam Khomeini’s answer was a blunt, “No.” I think he kept his promises and never issued any order in that regard. However, a year later, when the regime established itself and no one would dare ask such questions, his son-in-law, Ali Eshraghi, who has gone to Khorramshahr to investigate the oil worker crisis, came back with the solution of mandatory hejab! Of course, before that some ministries, such as the Foreign Ministry (of which Ebrahim Yazdi was in charge) had placed big boxes of rupushes and maghnes at its entrance for free to encourage modesty.

Prime Minster Mehdi Bazargan, more experience in politics and more familiar with Iranian culture than anybody else around in the government, disagreed with the whole issue. It is well known that he told Eshraghi, “Don’t wake up this sleeping elephant. If you let it out, you can never get it back into his cage. Do not touch the women’s hejab.”

Well, the hejab became mandatory, women protested, but demonstrations were brutally crushed. I heard from several women that during those days of protest, if it had not been for the generous help of shopkeepers or families along the way, they would have been killed.
With the start of the war and its escalation, the hejab, along with other women’s issues, became secondary issue and gradually turned into law without being challenged. But as soon war ended, women, the younger generation in particular, started their own innovative ways to express their dissatisfaction with hejab as well as other issues, forming a variety of associations, publications, NGOs and online institutions.

Some thirty years later, this piece of cloth over a woman’s hair has turned into a major tenet of the Faith. It is no longer a sign of discriminating believer from infidel, its original intention in the time of the Prophet Mohammad, peace upon him; it is not the sign of modesty, as interpreted by the clerics in our neighboring Islamic country Pakistan, with over a hundred and thirty million Muslims; it is not incorporated into our traditions and customs, as has happened in South Asia and Africa; and it does not even indicate piety, since it has been used by a wide variety of women, including those of ill repute. Instead, it seems to have become a weapon as well as a shield: a weapon in the hands of the ruling authority to curb the most active, united, and organized population in the country, of course with minimal success, and a shield for many women who think covering themselves in this fashion would bring them the reward of a few inches of room in the assembly of the holy, with no greater success.

However, I have known quite a number of pious and religious women before and after the revolution who wear the chador, not to show off their religiosity, but as a modest covering simply to draw less attention and somehow be invisible. The sincerity and honesty of their intent always aroused our deep respect for this article of clothing. I do not know of any Iranian little girl who has not been drawn to this fanciful, cozy device at a certain age. It was a natural stage of life without the interference of any police chiefs or basij officers!

What brought me back to this piece of clothing was a report from Paris and few photos from Oslo. The report from Paris was that of Fakhr os-Sadat Mohtashamipur, a reformist and a women activist, participating in a conference of women scholars. She had delivered her talk while covering herself in a black chador. Noticing the oddity of the situation (credit to her), she felt obliged to explain it to her audience. Apparently, prior to her trip, one women friend half jokingly told her, “No one will listen to what you say if you appear in that outfit,” referring to her chador. To prove her wrong and also, as she said, “being hurt emotionally by all the debates of these last few months regarding the superiority of chador over the scarf (she indicates she has chosen the chador of her free will), she decided to vent her frustration as well as to prove that “people would listen to ‘just words’ even if one wears a chador,” using the platform provided to her by Association of Women Researchers. (It is interesting that since last year, when the ruling authority started to abuse their power to brutally treat women who are “bad hejab”, we hear more about the complaints of women who are “good hejab by choice”—lets call them GHBCs. They are upset because they are considered by those “bad hejab” not as friends but as foes. The unkind looks and sometimes hostile glares of the “bad hejabs” became very hard and unbearable for these GHBCs!)

I do not know what sort of reasoning she used to convince herself, but to my ear it is most incongruous and odd. If a friend makes a joke, one can either take it lightly or answer it in kind. Why should she take it so seriously? Also, what possessed her to think that we who dwell in the West and are educated here pay any attention to appearances one way or the other, or place the same importance on them that the mullahs do in Qom? Most of us receive our information via radio or internet or books, and most of the time we do not know what the speaker or writer looks like or what he or she wears. How did she manage to form such a superficial impression of us?

But given all this, how did she come to the conclusion that she achieved what she was after? What evidence does she have that we, the audience in West, were not overwhelmed with her appearance and listened to her “right or just words?” We might not have! Indeed, we may have been so turned off by her arrogance and her self-righteousness and not by her chador as she expected, that we said to ourselves, “The hell with it, lets take a nap!”

But really Ms. Mohtashemipour, what did you achieve? We here have a life to run and frankly we do not give a fig how you appear on a panel discussion, and it does not matter if you want to cover yourself in hundred layers of chadors voluntarily or otherwise. When you appeared on stage with that outfit, you appeared mostly as a confused, immature woman who did not know what is appropriate. Your further remark and explanation, as it was posted on your blog, embarrassingly enough, confirmed that you cannot even separate your emotions from your work or at least set a priority. Ironically, it was you who placed such importance on your appearance that you forgot to do your homework right and began with a statement like, “Women stepped into the social arena with the founding of the Islamic Republic.”

Let’s imagine that you had used your platform to say the following instead:

My choice of cover is the chador, and that is what I have worn voluntary all my life, but today, as a sign of solidarity with millions of my sisters back home who are forced to wear it against their belief and will, I would like to present my talk with my head uncovered, first to express my sympathy to those who are doing what is painful to them and second to tell those pious Moslem that fresh air touching my hair does not take the least away from my piety and religious zeal, though I feel pained by doing so.

Let me assure you as to what would have happened: You would have ended up jobless upon your return, if not in Evin Prison. Needless to say this would not have been for displaying your hair, but for your solidarity.

(There is one issue I can not resist mentioning. In our Western education, we have learned that choice is meaningless if there is no freedom and liberty and if variety is not provided. Choosing the only option “imposed” on us is in fact a psychological trick to deliver ourselves from the pain of humiliation caused by the helplessness of being forced into a situation. The Christian doctrine of “turning the other cheek” based on the above-mentioned principal was advised when the Christians were under Roman occupation and enslaved. It was meant to ease the pain of the torture and hardship they were suffering. While millions of women in Iran are forced to wear a dress that they resent without having any other option, “chador is my dress of choice” is either a euphemism, tinted with manipulation, or just giving up the shirt when our jacket is stolen, just to relieve ourselves from the pain.)

The second jab came from photos of Masumeh Ebtekar, who was sitting next to former president Khatami in a conference in Oslo. It seems she wore two or three chadors, one on top of the other. Here in the United States we have an expression: “Converts are the worse kind.” I think it is true about Ms. Ebtakar. What is the meaning of those chadors and scarves which recently have extended to cover her hands as well? Do these yards of black fabric (exactly eight and half yards make a chador) have any spiritual function or is it just a statement? Clearly being devoid of any piety, it must be the latter, but what is it? That how virtuous we, the carrier of that black tent, are? That we are better than the others, purer, more pious, more clean? Or does it indicate that Masumeh Ebtekar can sit on a panel of significance with this odd and out of place black cloth wrapped around her, indifferent to the surrounding norm? Then what? Suppose that the entire audience nodded their heads as an assent to her existence as such. What is achieved by all this? Where does she want to go from there?

In every society, more or less, there is a sort of standard of appropriateness for dressing in public. Islam’s bar for body covering might be higher than some other cultures. But Iran is not an Islamic country per se; we are Iranian and have our own culture. Even our Islam is very much Iranianized. Thirty years is too brief, next to null, to establish such a bizarre institution in our society. Of course, women should choose their clothing freely if there is any option. If one wants to cover herself completely to be invisible, it is her choice and is respected. I do not deny the force of brutality, I do not deny the fear of physical pain, I do not deny our limits in tolerating humiliation, and I do not encourage anyone to challenge the ruling authorities since I don’t confront them myself. However, it is the least to expect from our reformist friends who claim to be the torch bearers of progress and civil society not to submit, leave alone cooperate, with the ruling establishment in implementing their invented institutions. The chador, even if it is a pure Iranian invention as some have claimed, has never been institutionalized as such in our country. Indeed, its primary purpose was a way of protecting the dignity of the poor and humble who could not travel with the trappings of the rich and haughty. It was never meant to protect the outsider from the evil emitted from our hair.

A century and a half of the dark ages of the Qajar dynasty followed by the totally different era of the Pahlavi dynasty is a good indication that even if the Islamic Republic lasts for a century, still the institutions, which do not fit our culture, won’t take root in Iran. I would like to call those GHBCs’ attention to the pictures left from the parties thrown in various clubs on Women’s Day in commemoration of the abolition of female veiling. It is interesting to see how so many women were ready to leave harems and hejab altogether and grasp the freedom, even if it was just a superficial aspect of freedom. Please go to the family albums and look at the faces of grandmothers and grand-grandmothers, proud and happy in their western cloths with those pretty hats. Even better, look at the pictures of early women’s associations and high school graduations and see how confident and determined those women looked in their western apparel and their new self-image looking forward to their new horizon.

Ms. Ebtekar, Ms. Mohtashamipoor and other GHBC ladies, you can appear in any outfit of your “choice” anywhere as individuals, without any justification, explanation, or apology. However we all should keep in mind that millions of us do not approve of that black cloth and that it means nothing but a cruel means of suppression and domination, and, ultimately, punishment. No, we do not accept it by “choice,” as you may have noticed, and not even by force. You GHBCs, you are not one of us, not because we do not believe you, you really might have “chosen” to be clad in that black shroud quite willingly, but just because you are unhelpful. Do you understand? Precisely when police were arresting innocent women and beating them in public for few strands of exposed hair and “their choice” of dress, you choose selfishly to stick to your favorite piece of cloth, which, incidentally happens to be what the rulers try to impose on everybody. And even worse, you get upset and hurt when those women, while beaten with clubs by another GHBC police woman, with blood pouring out of them, look at you with disgust and resentment. No ladies! “Choice” is not the right term. “Betrayal”? That might do. “Self serving”? A little better. “Opportunist”? Bravo! You said it right.

But sisters, hold on tight to your chadors while climbing up the ladder of your choice, but be careful not to fall off. Remember up there everybody is like you yourself, self-serving and self-righteous. One might have one more layer of covering than you, and that will do! I’m warning you, it is very lonely up there! And lonely down there! Watch out! But still, good luck to you all, if that is all you are and that is all you want and that is all you can offer.


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Fariborz Shamshiri said...

Islamic Iran is making excessive use of the death penalty to spread fear among people mostly dissidents and activists. Although Iranian officials insist death penalty is an effective deterrent but in fact experience in past 29 years proved that death penalty is not an effective way to prevent crimes.

Also Iran officials claim that death penalty is carried out only after an exhaustive judicial process which doesn't have any meaning while suspect doesn't go through a fair trial. Police force in Iran torture suspects to confess to crime whether they have done it or not and their confession under torture is a main argument that judges take into consideration to sentence suspects to death. Sadly most of judges are illiterate and they don't have any knowledge about law but sharia. They do careless about suspect rights from the beginning of trial to the end.

Under above circumstances all of these sentences are against international laws and Iran is in violation of them. (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)

We urge Islamic Republic of Iran's officials bring an immediate end to these executions.

Please support above cause to Stop Execution in Iran and spread the message in your network. Thanks.

Anna said...

You wrote:"Choosing the only option “imposed” on us is in fact a psychological trick to deliver ourselves from the pain of humiliation caused by the helplessness of being forced into a situation."

This brings to mind a quote by Harriet Tubman:
I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.

Excellent article. Thanks.