by Sussan Tahmasebi
Over the last two years, countless trade and diplomatic delegations have traveled to Iran to kick off economic cooperation in diverse sectors from the auto industry and the gas and oil sector to agriculture. In fact, Iran is embarking on trade and economic agreements at an unprecedented rate, including with many European countries, but also with China, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia and even some Latin American and Persian Gulf countries.
Two weeks ago, however, when a Swedish political and trade delegation visited Iran, it faced an avalanche of criticism. When pictures of the women in the delegation donning headscarves appeared in various media, the delegation and the Swedish government came under attack for appearing to appease the Iranian government on its policy of compulsory veiling, failing to take a stand for Iranian women and their right to choose their own dress, and maintaining contradictory policies in support of women at home and abroad. Many claimed that the female delegates should have refused to travel to Iran if it required wearing a headscarf. Others on social media were more radical in their demands, expecting the female delegation to condemn the practice, refuse to wear the headscarf, or subversively remove the headscarf while in the country.
The issue of compulsory veiling and unveiling has been a politically and emotionally charged issue in Iran for close to a century ever since Reza Shah, the founding monarch of the Pahlavi dynasty, forcefully “emancipated” women from the veil, in an effort to “modernize” Iran. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Reza Shah, later relaxed the law. During the reign of the second Pahlavi ruler, women were no longer required by law to uncover, but the practice of veiling was viewed largely by the political elite as a sign of backwardness. In the lead up the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the veil became a sign of resistance for female political objectors who identified themselves with political Islam.
Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, the policy was reversed and veiling for women became mandatory by law. Over the years the state and especially hardliners have claimed that the veiling of women represents the Islamic nature of the country and should be promoted as a sign of chastity and purity of not only women, but Iran as a whole. To this day the issue remains controversial and highly politicized, with ultra conservatives pushing for more rigorous and harsher enforcement of veiling and an increasingly vocal sector of Iranians and non-Iranians objecting to the policy. In fact, the issue is so charged that it is difficult to talk about veiling in more complex and nuanced ways, without being attacked by those on both sides of the debate.
Reaching Out to Iranian Women
As a women’s rights activist and a feminist I too am opposed to any form of compulsory veiling or control of women’s dress or bodies. Everyone should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies and dress, including Iranian women and non-Iranians who visit Iran. Female politicians choosing to go to Iran should object to the practice of compulsory veiling and if they are uncomfortable about it they should bow out of the mission. But more sensational and controversial objections by diplomats should be tied directly to the end result. The question that should be asked is this: will harsh condemnation of compulsory veiling by diplomats and governments who want to politically and economically engage with Iran benefit Iranian women and end the practice?
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