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No man's man
Religion, gender and class in Iran's presidential race

By Roshanak Keyghobadi in Tehran
June 8, 2001
The Iranian

Since the beginning of the Iranian revolution in 1978, women and their appearance have been an integral part of contemporary Iranian cultural politics. The correct forms for woman to appear in public or be represented in the press or films therefore have become not only source of daily controversy but divisive political debates. How a woman looks, what she wears, how she wears them and how she arranges them on her body have all become ideologically volatile.

In an unexpected way, "fashion" is politicized in contemporary Iran. "Fashion" is no longer "small talk"; it is the "big talk" that is now part of debates over the future of the country. It is an important element in an emerging vocabulary of a brand new political theory.

The Islamic dress code in Iran requires all women to cover their hair, their entire bodies up to their wrists and ankles and present themselves in a modest and sexually non-evocative manner. Today, if you walk in Tehran from the poverty-stricken southern streets to the wealthy north boulevards, you can see a wide array of styles and different registers of fashion in women's clothing.

Not only are there women covered head to toe in chador, female students with maghnaeh (long, dark headscarves) and long raincoats (manteaus) but many who are dressed in expensive, beautiful and ever smaller headscarves, Gucci sunglasses and high cut manteaus with short Capri pants underneath. Shoes in every color and shape from platform sandals to top of the line one hundred-dollar Nike sneakers adorn most teenage girls and young women's feet.

The cut, color and size of the scarf and manteau , amount of hair showing beyond the head covering, degree of makeup and the display of fashion accessories such as sunglasses worn by women have become of particular symbolic significance in the new political theory of clothes and appearance. The colorful headscarf represents a bold contrast to the traditional hardliner's black chador and her sunglasses are tokens of western fashion trends and influences.

The full significance of this politics of clothing becomes clear in a recent picture of the President printed in one of Tehran's weeklies. On May 31, 2001, Shoma (a right-wing publication opposed to Mr. Khatami) [1] printed a photomontage [2] of the President's face juxtaposed with the face of a female. The female's face belongs to one of more than 30,000 participants of the huge gathering in Shiroudi Stadium, which was held in support of Mr. Khatami's candidacy in the upcoming presidential election of June 8th. On the lower part of the image is Mr. Khatami's open and smiling face with his fashionable eyeglasses and well groomed beard and moustache. He is wearing no abaa (traditional outer covering that religious figures wear) on top of his ghabaa (white outfit under abaa).

The photograph shows a very small portion of his amaameh (head turban), which is another symbolic piece of religious clothing in a background of white vertical stripes on a gray plane. Right at the border where his forehead and amaameh ends the top part of the photomontage begins. This is also the top part of the female's face, which begins with her nose holding her big and stylish sunglasses. Her colorful and patterned headscarf covers her hair entirely.

She is holding a flower (gladiola) that is leaning on her right cheek. Behind her Iranian flag in green, white and red is sitting on top of a blue sky with white clouds. These images are all highly ideologically loaded in contemporary Iran.

To his supporters, Mr. Khatami represents a progressive politician who is willing to have meaningful dialogue with everyone and every culture. He promotes the rule of law and advocates tolerance. His open smiling face is the code that signals to his supporters his open-mined, friendly and equalitarian thinking that he stands for.

To his conservative opponents, however, the smile is the smile of a scheming traitor of the Islamic values. To them Mr. Khatami's tolerance is only the sign of his weakness and what in fact makes Islam weak. To them he is not tough enough, and out of touch with hard realities. He is a philosopher-king who lives in a dreamy utopia and not a seasoned politician tuned to geopolitics of a world hostile to Islam.

Politically the photomontage is so new that it raises all kinds of questions about the meaning of this new hybrid image. Does this new image suggest a presidential candidate whose head is in clouds and therefore not qualified to preside over Iran during in these tikes of crisis? Does the Iranian flag mean that his priorities are more nationalist than religious and therefore an unreliable leader of the Islamic Republic?

Is the softness of the entire montage meant to suggest that he is a "soft" man-more a poet and philosopher than a hard-nosed man of practical politics. And what is the role of the female figure? Does the figure of woman dressed in western style sunglasses suggest that Mr. Khatami is pro-Western or simply pro-woman?

Or is the figure of woman not so much a marker of gender as class? Mr. Khatami, in this reading of codes stands for the interest of the rich, upper-class people who wear expensive clothes, chic headscarves and brand name sunglasses.

Mr. Khatami's opponents are using the ambiguities in these codes as powerful weapons to depict him as a man who is not quite a man, an Iranian who is not quite Iranian, a religious leader who is not quite religious and a man of people who is in actuality supporter of upper classes. One can, of course, offer contesting readings of these codes. The only reading that will matter in terms of practical politics, is the one decoded by the June 8th election.


1) Reprinted in Norouz newspaper on 12th of Kordad, 1380 (June 2nd , 2001). On 13th of Khordad 1380 (June 3rd, 2001) Norouz published this note from Shoma, Organ Jamiat e Motalefeh : "This photo was not a montage and the original image and its negative are available in our newspaper's office". To top

2) Photomontage is a technique that combines variety of photographic images from different sources, which possess various connotations to creates a new image with a totally new meaning and context. Photomontage was a favorite technique of Dada artists in Germany after the World War and it was their political reaction to the current events of their time. To top

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for writer Roshanak Keyghobadi


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