Among the Eastern peoples, Iranians-who have always asserted “not to be mistaked for Arabs (!)”-seem to be the most difficult for the western eye to understand, and Iranian women-or attitudes towards them-have long been a surface of controversy. But what are truly Iranian women allowed to do within their society that during the 70s looked as happy, liberal, healthy and educated as any other cosmopolitan society?
Contrary to popular belief, women in Iran are not covered unless they choose to. The traditional black cloak, or else the “chador” is mainly met in women of older generations. Nevertheless, women in Iran do have to wear a “rusari”, that is a headscarf, while the dress code in Iran is always subject to how conservative regional norms are.
Women are generally accepted in the workplace in Iran – although, once again, there are restrictions. Under Article 1117 of the Civil Code, an Iranian man can ban his wife from working if he believes this would be “incompatible with the interests of the family or with his or his wife’s dignity”. When it comes to the world of politics women are allowed “to run for parliament and the 290-seat House currently has nine female members (a mere three per cent of the total). President Hassan Rouhani has made an important gesture by appointing a handful of female ministers”. (The Telegraph 21.9.2015)
Yes, apparently there are “glass ceilings” for Iranian women both in the workforce and the political life, same as there used to be in the west and still exist in many western societies who tend to flirt with conservativism anew after quite a long time ago. But there is also good news: Unlike other eastern societies, Iranian women are allowed to drive and move with relative freedom. There are no restrictions on female primary or secondary education as well as at university level. However, certain academic institutions do not allow female students to study particular subjects, usually those regarding engineering and technology.
Something is happening in Iran.We visited Esfahan and Shiraz in January 2016, a few days before the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 (ISA) expiry. Women now comprise the majority of students in Universities and men occupy traditional breadwinning positions, in the work force. And yes there is a flair of liberty in the air. Women seem to flirt with the west, often daring to let their “rusaris” loose to reveal their abundance of hair and show off their make up on which they seem to have spend endless time. But while one would expect that women are those who will proudly open up to the global world of ideas, standing for the affluence of the Persian culture and intellect, post-capitalist vanity seems to be just around the corner; obsession with physical beauty has turned Iran into the country with the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world! (The Guardian 1.3.2013) Would this be a reaction to the restrictive rules of the hijab or otherwise projection of the need to indulge in the consumerist frenzy in which the rest of the world voraciously does in an attempt to resemble the stars of Hollywood? In any case, either seen as the “politics of beauty” raising itself against obsolete doctrines or just another delusion of the post-capitalist era, Globalisation once again seems to have the edge.