Islam and Iranian women
by Barbara Farrar Karkabi
As the ship docked in Alexandria,
Egypt, three women came down the gangplank, took off their veils and walked—
barefaced—towards the waiting crowd.
There was a moment of silence, then
the crowd began to react. They seemed
|about to turn on the three women when,
one by one, all the women in the crowd
tore off their veils in a dramatic sign of
The year was 1923. The three had just
returned from a conference in Rome on
women's rights, which had inspired them
to get rid of the veil back home. Within
five years of their dockside demonstration, the use of the veil had largely
disappeared in Egypt.
Over the years, the veil slowly began to
disappear in many other Middle Eastern
countries - although its use has not yet
been eradicated. But in countries like
Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iran
it has come to be thought of as a thing
of the past.
The veil goes by many names in
the Middle East-it is the milayah in
Egypt, the abbayah in Iraq, the chadoor
lin Iran, the yashmak in Turkey, the burga
pi Afghanistan and the djellabah and the
haik in North Africa. But, whatever it is
called, it comes down to the same thing—
the total concealment of a woman under
|a full-length cotton veil.
In Islam, the Koranic verse that calls
[for the barrier between men and women
pays: "Prophet, enjoin your wives, your
daughters and the wives of believers to
draw their veils close round them. That
ts more proper, so that they may be
recognized and not molested. Allah is
(forgiving and merciful."
To American and western feminists,
Ithe veil stirs up strong emotions. Elizabeth Fernea, an American writer who has
Qived for many years in the Middle East,
says in her article, "A Look Behind the
JVeil," (Human Nature, January 79) "The
(veil triggers western reaction simply
(because it is the dramatic, visible sign of
krexing questions, questions that are still
peing debated, problems that have still
pot been solved in the Middle East or
[in Western societies."
She also says that the veil has sexual
jconnotations. It proclaims that women
should cover up the evil, enticing parts
of their bodies. Marge Randall, a PhD
candidate in anthropology, disagrees.
She feels the veil is a way of telling
women they're not people. "It's just
another way men have of controlling
women," she says.
Whatever the answer, the veil has been
a hotly debated subject, and as French
ethnologist Germaine Tillion says, "The
feminine veil has become a symbol: that
of the slavery of one portion of humanity."
But have we, in fact, focused too
much attention on the veil and ignored
other equally important issues? Many
Middle Eastern women seem to think so.
And the question becomes especially
valid in light of recent events in Iran.
One month ago, Iranian women took
to the streets of Tehran and demonstrated against certain edicts of the
Ayatollah Khomeini's government. "In
the dawn of freedom, there is no freedom," they chanted.
Some of the edicts were, according to
reports by western press, a return to
"modest" dressing and even perhaps a
return to the chadoor; a change of the
family laws affecting divorce, and abolishment of coeducational schools.
Newspaper reports focused on the re-
introduction of the veil, or the chadoor,
as the focal and most emotional of the
The press and especially the American
media indicated that since the Shah was
the son of the man who had officially
abolished the chadoor in 1935, he was
the savior of Iranian women.
So much of the progress made by Iranian women under the Shah was going to
be totally reversed by the Moslem regime
of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the reports
all said. But, in reality, how good was the
Shah for Iranian women?
Certainly his image falters somewhat in a quote taken from a December,
1973 interview with Italian journalist
Oriana Fallaci. "I am the son of the man
who removed women's veils. But I
wouldn't be sincere if I asserted that I'd
been influenced by a single one of them.
Nobody can influence me . . . and a
woman still less," the Shah said.
Nancy Hormachea, a Houston lawyer
who has defended hundreds of Iranian
students over the past four years, says she
does not understand the attitude of
"They think because women did not
wear the veil under the Shah that they
were liberated? How free could women
be, when literally thousands of them were
being arrested by SAVAK (the Shah's
Secret Police) and tortured in the Shah's
Referring to Kate Millett's participation in the Iranian demonstrations, she
asks, "Where were American feminists in
those days of torture and repression?
Where were they last September 8 when
400 women were killed in a demonstration in Tehran?"
In a recent article inMajority Report
Myrna Hill quotes a woman writer who
traveled extensively in Iran before the
revolution and who interviewed many
"The writer said she could only assess
the Shah's reforms on women's rights as
a total sham ... A women's rights organization sponsored by the Shah's government consisted of upper-class women
who took no political stand and merely
provided some harmless services such as
sewing lessons for the less fortunate
"The basic ownership of a woman by
her male relatives went unchallenged
and most women did not have the
cultural freedom to exercise their theoretical' right to vote."
The reporter added that she was
shadowed daily by SAVAK spies all
through her trip—even in the supermarket.
In an effort to find out what the
future will be for Iranian women and
what role-if any— American feminists
can play in assisting them, Breakthrough
spoke with several Iranian women in
Feresh Sadeghr, dressed with her hair
modestly covered by a scarf, is representative of the religious Moslem woman.
She came to the U.S. in 1975, and got her
PhD in educational administration from
the University of Texas.
Breakthrough spoke to her at the
Islamic Center on Richmond Avenue,
where religious Iranians gather every
Thursday to worship.
Sadeghr believes strongly in the new
Islamic Republic of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Along with many of the Aya-
tollah's followers, she points to the fact
that a true Islamic Republic has never
"The Shah and others have practiced
a distortion of Islam. What resulted was
an Islam that was twisted by dictatorship and colonialism," she says.
Women will have more freedom in the
new regime than under the Shah, she
says. They will be respected for the
"intellect" and not for their "physical"
appearance. "The days of designer dresses
are finished for Iran," she says.
Confusion arises, Sadeghr says, because women have not been told of
their rights as they exist in the Koran—
they only know them as they have been
"falsely" interpreted through the years.
"Although I don't accuse the media
of lying," she says, "I do believe they
focus on one issue and exclude others."
Sadeghr insists that the Ayatollah did not
call for a return to the chadoor, but only
that women be dressed "modestly" and
specifically those women who work in
Sadeghr's interpretation of dressing
modestly excludes mini-skirts, too much
make-up, open-neck and sleeveless
"But," she says, "women in the
streets can dress as they like-as acceptable to public opinion. In the last 50
years, that standard hasn't changed.
If a woman wore a bikini on the street
during the Shah's rule, the people
wouldn't have liked it either."
As far as family law is concerned,
Sadeghr maintains that women are
entitled to the right of divorce, under the
law of the Koran. She says they may
include the right to divorce in the marital
contract, which is signed between families
before marriage. Even if it is not, a woman is allowed to go before a court of
imams (or priests) and request a divorce,
She adds that at least half the rural
population doesn't know these things
because they have been living in a non-
Islamic country. "When you have corruption in a country, it sifts down to all
levels," she says. "Islam believes in
freedom for everyone."
Sadeghr's views are strongly questioned by Fahimeh Ahia, a 26-year-old
electronics student at Texas Southern
University. Strongly political, Ahia was
jailed in Houston in 1976, for taking part
in an anti-Shah demonstration in front
of the French Consulate.
"I don't think there is any freedom for
women in the Koran," she says. "Where
are the examples of this freedom in
Iran? Just try and go before a court of
imams and get a divorce—impossible.
And it was the same under the Shah,
Ahia says that 80 percent of the
people fought to remove the Shah
because they were poor and hungry.
They didn't fight for religion. She
believes religion and government should
As Nancy Hormachea says, "What is
Islamic government? We don't know what
it is. Certainly as it exists in Saudi Arabia,
it is terrible. If the Islamic government
continues for any length of time in Iran,
I believe that women will be in for a
Both Ahia and Hormachea resent
American feminists picking up the
chadoor and making it the most significant issue. "American feminists make
too much of the veil. There are other
more significant issues in Iran today,"
She is not alone in her claim. Ferneal
quotes an Iraqi feminist as saying, "Com-|
pared to the real issues that are involved
between men and women in the Middle
East today, the veil is unimportant."
Fernea also quotes a Moroccan linguist
who says "My mother wears a djellabah
and a veil. I have never worn them. But
so what? I still cannot get divorced as
easily as a man and I am still a member of|
my family group and responsible to them
for everything I do. What is the veil? A
piece of cloth."
Hormachea explains that before the
revolution, the women's movement
existed only in Iran's upper classes. But
the massive move to oust the Shah united
upper, middle and lower class women for
the first time.
"Some of the most revolutionary
women I knew wore the chadoor and hid
their machine guns and grenades under
it. It became a symbol of the resistance
against the Shah and an ethnic symbol as
well. Also, many of these women,
although they were participating in a
revolution, were still semi-feudal in men
For these women, she says, the veil is a
divisive issue—because upper-class women
were able to travel and see another way
of life. They had the luxury to choose
not to wear the veil. Lower-class women
never had the opportunity, she points
"Lower-class women not only could
not choose, they don't know how to read
or even what the concept of freedom is.
They have been exploited by the Shah,
their husbands and the upper classes.
Because they don't understand what it's
like not to wear the veil and all it repre
sents, they would resent any woman telling them not to wear it," says Hormachea.
Ahia adds that while she would never
want to be forced to wear the veil—she
believes every woman should make her
own personal choice.
"My grandmother told me of the days
when the Shah's father abolished the veil.
He had police stationed at streetcorners
ripping off veils—that is not freedom
either," she says.
If wearing the chadoor is the only way
to raise women's consciousness and enlighten them to their rights—Ahia says
that she would do it. She believes that
once the women become aware of their
rights, the chadoor will die a natural
So, what are the significant issues to
Hormachea and Ahia? Both of them
stress the importance of women working
outside the home. As Ahia says, "If you
taKe away the chadoor and the women
stay at home, what good is that?"
Women should be encouraged to take
jobs as teachers and nurses, jobs that
involve them in running the country—although Hormachea adds, not necessarily
in the provisional Khomeini government because, "it is not in the best interests of women."
Women are still considered only half a
person, Ahia says. To marry or divorce
they need their family's permission. a|
woman cannot leave the country without]
her husband's permission. Women are
excluded from many jobs, such as work
in the oil fields. All this must be changed,
In the wake of the recent fighting,
Hormachea says a group was formed
called the "Zans-e-Mobarez," or the
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