The veil as a political tool
By Azadeh Namakydoust
May 8, 2003
During the 1979 Islamic Revolution many women deliberately chose
to observe the Hejab, either in the form of wearing the veil or
a scarf, as a sign of solidarity with Ayatollah Khomeini and a symbol
of opposition to the Shah's regime. In the months immediately following
the return of Khomeini to Iran, what had been a private matter before
became very public and Shari'a Islamic laws became the
law of the land.
With that, observing the Hejab and wearing the veil became mandatory
and enforced with much rigor. But many of the women who had been
observing the Hejab voluntarily during the revolution took to the
streets once again; only this time they were demonstrating in opposition
to the laws that were being implemented and enforced by the Islamic
government, that they helped put in power, and in opposition to
the enforcement of the veil.
On January 7, 1936, Iran became the first Muslim country to ban
the veil following a royal decree by Reza Shah Pahlavi; this was
part of a series of actions taken by Reza Shah in an effort to "modernize"
Iran. The strict enforcement of the unveiling of women caused much
uproar and distress among various communities.
For many women wearing the veil represented tradition, honor, femininity,
and some times even comfort; hence most women, along with their
husbands, passionately opposed the royal decree. Some women refused
to leave their houses for months, some others ventured out into
the streets in full cover and risked being beaten and having the
veil violently pulled off of their heads.
Despite the rigorous efforts of the government to enforce the ban
on veil, the resistance of women proved to be much stronger than
what the government had predicted. Many women continued to observe
a modest Hejab. When Mohammed Reza Pahlavi became the Shah following
the abdication of his father in 1941, the ban on the veil was lifted.
According to Farzaneh Milani in Veils
and Words, it was not long before that there was
a "renewed interest in the veil". This time the traditional
and religious women were not the only ones who observed some degree
of Islamic Hejab; some of the more liberal and non-traditional women
of middle and upper classes also took up the scarf and the observance
of the Hejab.
This "renewed interest in the veil" coincided with the
implementation of reforms in Mohammad Reza Shah's White Revolution.
As Zohreh Sullivan states in Eluding the Feminist, these
reforms, which were generally seen as a move toward Westernization
and industrialization, "resulted in poverty and chaos that
followed mass migration from country to city."
The masses of people, who were already concerned about the growing
gap between the rich and the poor, became more alarmed and an opposition
movement slowly began to take shape. As the media and the press
were controlled by the government, university campuses and religious
venues, mainly mosques, became the major outlets for the outcry
against the pro-Capitalist, pro-Imperialist, and generally pro-American
policies of the Shah's government.
That in turn encouraged a move towards more traditional values
and ways of living, which included dressing more modestly for
both men and women and even wearing the scarf or the veil for some
women. For many women making the decision to wear the chador was
not based on religious grounds, but it was a conscious effort to
make a statement against the Pahlavi regime. It was against this
backdrop that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 took place; a revolution,
which one could argue, could not have taken place without the active
involvement of women.
Ironically, Khomeini's decree, requiring women to wear the chador,
came on March 7th, 1979, a month after his return to Iran and one
day before International Women's Day. Energized and excited that
they had achieved what they had fought so hard for, various women's
organizations in Tehran and all across Iran, had planned celebrations
for marking International Women's Day >>> See
As Parvin Paidar notes, those celebrations quickly morphed into
massive protests and demonstrations; "the protesters included
young and old, rich and poor, veiled and unveiled", just as
women from all walks of life had marched in support of the revolution
and Khomeini, they now were protesting against his policies on women's
rights. Thousands of women participated in spontaneous and massive
protests against the Hejab.
Once again women were demanding their rights, only this time they
were demanding it from the very government that they had hoped (and
had promised) would ensure the protection of their rights. Despite
the numerous meetings and protests that were held on Tehran University
campus, the streets, and even at the Ministry of Justice, the women
were unsuccessful in reversing the compulsory veiling decree.
To make matters worse, most of the political action groups, which
many of the women were members of, failed to fully support the women
in their opposition to the compulsory veil. Although some of these
political parties condemned compulsory veiling in writing, they
failed to support their words with action.
All the different views taken by the various political parties
on the question of women and the observance of Hejab can be summarized
in the views of four major political parties: Fadaiyan-e Khalq,
Mojahedin-e Khalq, Women's Organization of the National Front, and
the Islamic Republic Party (IRP). The latter was the ruling party
founded by pro-Khomeini clergymen.
The Marxist Fadaiyan-e Khalq believed that the women of Iran did
not sacrifice their lives and did not partake in the Islamic revolution
in order to achieve "unrestrained looseness under the name
of liberation" but that they had strived for a genuine political
and social equality with men in "all political, social, and
In the days immediately following the March 8th decree, Bakhtiar,
the last Prime Minister under the Shah's regime, in a last attempt
to regain the support of large groups of women, ceased the opportunity
to criticize Khomeini's policies on the issue of the veil and warned
women of the horrific laws that were sure to follow compulsory veiling.
This attempt did not go unnoticed by the Fadaiyan. They warned
women that the issue of compulsory veiling was being used by the
royalists and Bakhtiar supporters to benefit from the chaotic situation
that the country was in at the time and to try to present and promote
themselves as pro-women.
It seems that it would be safe to conclude that although the Fadaiyan
were in favor of some degree of observance of the Islamic hejab,
they were opposed to the enforcement of chador and compulsory veiling.
Another major political group that addressed the issue of compulsory
veiling, was the leftist-Islamic Mojahedin-e Khalq. The Mojahedin
took the stance that seems to have been the general view of many
other factions involved in the revolution. They took the position
that the question of Hejab and mandatory veiling was a minor one
and that it should not be included in the major issues that needed
to be addressed.
While acknowledging that in the past Hejab had been used to oppress
women and exclude them from social and political activities, they
noted that many "Iranian militant Muslim women" had adapted
their clothes accordingly so that "while still observing Hejab
they [did] not hinder social relations."
The Mojahedin believed that dealing with the impertinent question
of veiling would be a waste of energy and forces and that "it
[would] provide opportunities and pretexts for plotting and agitation
by the counter-revolutionary forces"
The Women's Organization of the National Front party took quite
an interesting approach to Khomeini's decree. They utilized the
teachings of the Koran and the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him)
to argue that Islam does, in fact, guarantee women equal rights
with men and that women have traditionally been integral members
of society. They further argued that the Islamic Republic should,
taking advantage of "divine blessings", strive to help
women realize the rights they fought for during the revolution and
to help them realize their full potential in the political and social
Also, noting that the Article 21 of the Constitution states that
"government must assure the rights of women in all respects,
in conformity with Islamic criteria", they held the government
responsible for making sure that the constitutional rights of women
It is interesting that the National Front took the position it
did, because this was the party of the former Prime Minister Mohammed
Mossadegh, which believed that the government of Iran should be
a secular one with having the protection of the rights of the Iranian
citizens as its main priority.
The positions that all of the above political parties took on the
issue of compulsory veiling, was obviously in opposition to the
views of the ruling party, the IRP.
Abolhassan Banisadr, who became the IRI's first president, justified
the enforcement of the veil by stating that in a society such as
Iran, "clothing has a social role" and that the goal of
the society should be to establish a "unitarian society"
in which the relationship between men and women would be a "relationship
between brains" and in order to achieve such a society, people
"must inevitably minimize those relations that are engendered
between bodies. [People] must choose clothing appropriate to such
Taking similar views IRP leader Ayatollah Beheshti, cited tradition,
history, and opposition to "colonialism and imperialism"
as some of the reasons for the necessity of wearing the chador by
women. He also noted that wearing the chador gives women "national
character". Reminding his audience of the ban on veil during
Reza Shah's reign, he condemned Reza Shah for trying to "'undignify'
our women and draw them into lightheaded loose behavior" as
part of his "colonialist policies".
He also makes the argument that women started to wear the chador
and to observe the Hejab voluntarily and that "no one forced
[them] to come with Hejab on demonstrations" and that they
felt an "Islamic responsibility" to do so. Surprisingly,
he notes that just as no one forced the women to wear the chador
during the revolution, no one is trying to force them to wear it
now, and that they (the IRP members) are only "requesting it"
and that "Ayatollah Khomeini has not expressed it in terms
of imposition and force".
Clearly, there seems to have been a discrepancy between
Khomeini's decree and their interpretation of it, perhaps for the
purpose of trying to calm people down. The only thing that is clear
is that no matter how the decree was interpreted, the women were
not successful in lifting the mandate on wearing the veil and that
veiling did indeed become compulsory.
During the revolution women were encouraged to participate in
demonstrations against the regime. Women, who had been actively
opposing the regime in various ways, became an integral part of
the anti-Shah movement. They had many of the same ideals as their
male counterparts. They believed in equal rights for men and women,
in freedom of speech and expression, and in "abolishment of
all discrimination in law against women, particularly in relation
to the family".
None of these ideals became reality after the revolution. As Haleh
Esfandiari notes, almost all the women she interviewed for her book,
Lives, felt a sense of betrayal and loss. Almost all said
that "they had felt profoundly the humiliations visited on
them by the regime's policies and actions regarding women."
It did not take long for the hopes of the women for a democratic
society to turn into a nightmare, as the country became a theocracy.
Some of the women Esfandiari interviewed kept their hopes alive
for a year or two after the revolution; for some the dream died
almost immediately after the IRP took over. Mari, one of the women
interviewed by Esfandiari, says:
Like many others, I was also swept off my feet by the revolution...
I remember the night Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran. I was
excited and agitated... I never considered this [wearing the chador]
a social movement, but rather a show of defiance against the system.
I was too worried about communism to pay much attention to Islam.
This seems to be how most of the women felt. Most women who took
part in the revolution did not cover their heads for strictly religious
purposes. Most of the women saw wearing the chador as a sign of
opposition to the shah's regime and as Esfandiari suggests, as a
sign of protest "against a government associated in the minds
of its opponents with the West."
The term "Westoxification" (gharbzadegi) was
coined by Dr. Ali Shariati and the anti-Western movement that had
started to slowly take shape in the early sixties was now in full
bloom. Wearing the Hejab not only was a symbol of defiance of the
regime, but as Milani suggests, it was a way of making a personal
statement. It was a last step in the healing process of some of
the women who had gone through the "distress and traumatization"
that the violent enforcement of the ban on veil during Reza Shah's
reign had caused them.
As Akram S. Pari suggested in an interview I did with her, there
was another purpose for the observance of Hejab during the revolution.
Many middle and upper class women saw the scarf and chador as unifying
factors among women. She states that:
In order to show solidarity with the economically lower class
women, who have traditionally been more religious, the middle
and upper class women started wearing a scarf or chador in demonstrations.
This was perceived by many women as a weapon they utilized against
the Shah to demonstrate their unity.
This is a view that was shared by many women during the revolution.
This is one of the reasons for the advocacy for modesty. Also, as
Afsaneh Najmabadi suggests, "Wstoxification" was quite
a taboo concept and every effort was made by women and men alike
to avoid looking like a Westoxificated (gharbzadeh). This
further encouraged the need for modesty in clothing and behavior.
Millions of women took part in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They
saw the revolution as a means to achieve the rights they thought
they deserved to have. Many of the women did indeed wear the chador
voluntarily during the revolution, but for them the revolution was
a political movement rather than a religious one. They resented
the Pahlavi regime and every thing that it stood for and in the
1970's Hejab represented what the Pahlavi's had rejected. As Sullivan
states, "the chador is used by opposing camps for opposite
reasons: the veil as a symbol of liberation from the dictatorial
state and as an instrument for hegemonizing a revolution by those
whose only aim was political power."
The IRI regime has tried its best, without much success, to sell
the idea and impose the veil on women. Today's women not only oppose
the enforcement of the chador and compulsory veiling with as much
rigor as they did in 1980, they are slowly gaining some of the rights
they had hoped to gain through the revolution. These women are utilizing
the experiences they gained through organizing and activism during
the revolution to bring about change in the Islamic Republic.
It seems that this is precisely what the regime was afraid of at
the onset of the revolution. They realized that women had been so
empowered through their involvement in the revolution that no one
could have stopped them, thus they became even obsessed with restraining
women and denying them their rights. Today, most women in Iran are
of the opinion that the veil and the scarf are not their Hejab (restriction);
they believe that the laws and denying them their rights are their
real Hejab. Today, both religious and secular women are striving
to acheive those ideals that they had hoped to be able to acheive
some 23 years ago.
Azadeh Namakydoust wrote this paper for a Middle Eastern history
class at the University of Cincinnati.
-- Afshar, Haleh, ed. Women
and Politics in the Third World. London, NY: Routledge,
-- Afshar, Haleh Islam
and Feminisms: An Iranian Case Study. NY: St. Martin's
Press, INC, 1998.
-- Esfandiari, Haleh Reconstructed
Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution. Washington
DC: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997.
-- Milani, Farzaneh Veils
and Words: the Emerging voices of Iranian Women Writers.
NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992.
-- Najmabadi, Afsaneh (Ed.). Women's
Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran Harvard Middle Eastern
Monographs, No 25, 1991.
-- Pari, Akram S. Interview by Azadeh Namakydoust. 27 November,
-- Paidar, Parvin Women
and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran. Great
Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
-- Sullivan, Zohreh. Eluding the Feminist. Remaking Women: Feminism
and Modernity in the Middle East. Ed. Lila Abu-Lugod. NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2000.
-- Tabari, Azar and Nahid Yeganeh. In
the Shadow of Islam. London: Zed Press, 1982.
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