The Compulsory Veiling Syndrome in Iran
Rahman Bouzari, Saleh Najafi
How could, or better, should we interpret the new resistance shown by the Iranian women to the compulsory veiling? Is this a call for liberal value of all human beings recognized by Western societies but violated for decades in Iran? Or, are there other ways of looking at the current unveiling/anti-veiling struggles in Iran?
The 2017 Iranian uprising is a multifaceted Benjaminian “tiger’s leap” into the past, into that which has gone before. Though unorganized and scattered, it is capable of expanding itself into different strata of society, to women, workers, students, teachers, lower and upper middle-classes, thus challenging the Islamic Republic as a whole.
What has been established over the past four decades in Iran is an apartheid regime that has amalgamated varying types of racial and ethnic segregation with sexual, religious, and class discrimination against women, non-believers, and the underprivileged. More broadly, it has come to install an institutionalized differentiation between regime insiders (those who are loyal to the IR) and outsiders (those who transgress, even inwardly, obedience to the IR) – a revised version of the friend-enemy binary in real politics. Though most Iranians were defined as the outsiders, women were the first targeted group of continual harassment by the established power. The compulsory veiling, in this regard, is the prototype of all other discriminations in being historically and structurally associated with diverse mechanisms for excluding the majority of the population from what Hannah Arendt called vita activa (active life).
A day after the 1979 Revolution, the exceptionality of women in the Iranian public social sphere was rendered apparent. Surprisingly enough, the distinct characteristic of Iranian post-revolutionary society consists in how women have become indistinguishably an example and, at the same time, an exception. In the political terminology of Giorgio Agamben, “exception and example constitute the two modes by which a set tries to found and maintain its own coherence: the exception by inclusive exclusion and the example by exclusive inclusion.” Women were among the first of those who have been barred from free social and political presence in the public sphere, despite their active participation in the ’79 Revolution. They are the pivotal example of the ’79 participants who have been excluded, deliberately, from its actual outcome, though included in the very process of the ’79 Revolution. The political Islamism that had acquired the hegemonic representation of the Revolution did not recognize women’s right to choose their own lifestyle and appearance. On the other hand, women’s very being was considered most ubiquitous threat against the status quo, an exception able to demand the unfulfilled lost causes of the ’79 Revolution, both in libertarian as well as egalitarian terms (particularly, if taken into account the fact that women’s demands could be always put forth in terms of the potential universalism laid out by the Revolution, rather than by appealing to abstract human rights or glorifying pre-Revolutionary freedoms, without pointing out the structuring unevenness and inequalities of the ancien régime).
The dispossession of public sphere from Iranian women took place immediately after the ’79 Revolution. On March, 8th 1979, International Women’s Day, Iranian women poured into the streets to express their anger openly against the compulsory veiling. It was a prologue to four decades of the theocratic bludgeoning of all of the parties and fractions, mostly leftists and seculars. The social deprivation of Iranian women, thus, constitutes the act of exclusion throughout the IR, rather than just the elimination of a minority or majority of the population. It has to be understood as the first in a series of other structuring socio-political exclusions, including physically executing all the political dissidents – culminating in the 1988 massacre – and symbolically excluding all those forces that have hindered the effort to call the 1979 Revolution an Islamic one. And ultimately, as the recent uprisings remind us, this includes the exclusion of the working class, the underprivileged, the urban poor, peasants and rural dwellers, in the name of which the ’79 Revolution occurred.
The exceptionality of Iranian women would be fully grasped if it is compared with other excluded minorities in Iran, such as homosexuals. Although homosexuality is not legalized, homosexuals are free to act or communicate with their fellow travellers as long as they do not openly call themselves LGTBQ. On the contrary, unveiled women are subjected to a variety of repressions, regardless of any condition.
Eliminating unveiled women from being represented finds its best expression in the Iranian post-Revolutionary cinema. The direct and desiring gaze (of both the characters and the camera) was prohibited as well as the presentation of women as sexual objects or means to attract men. They had to be pictured as innocent and as sacred as possible, under strict Islamic regulations. The veiling requirement imposed on all on-screen women, nonetheless, led to a cinematic creation – the subversion of the scopophilic and voyeuristic impulses of dominant cinema – rather than to the elimination of women from films, as Iranian film critic Negar Mottahedeh has argued. “In an effort to produce a national cinema against the voyeuristic gaze of dominant cinema,” she writes, “the post-Revolutionary film industry was charged with reeducating the national sensorium and inscribing a new national subject-spectator severed from dominant cinema’s formal systems of looking.” This is further evidence of the exceptionality of women in Iran.
The image of an Iranian woman taking off her headscarf to protest the veil law, or walking unveiled in the street, illustrates the exceptional emancipatory status of women in Iran. The compulsory veiling syndrome along with restricted individual freedoms – the female right to divorce, to educate, to travel, and so on – reveals the kernel of four decades of Islamic governance. An Iranian woman who rejects veiling has no choice other than to be excluded from the coordinates of the Islamic Republic. Looking through the representative lens of the IR, she belongs to a set with no other members, to an empty one. The same empty set, however, demonstrates its myriad members on the streets of Iran. Four decades of segregation and political and economic discrimination against Iranian society have led to the uprisings of all of those excluded, from women and students to workers and the urban poor. Women are not only the best representatives of the excluded, but the very name of exclusion.
To insist on the political exceptionality of Iranian women is to declare fidelity to emancipatory politics, provided that it is not considered as the rights of the citizen. Human beings as such enjoy certain rights that are known generally as human rights. Iranian women, however, as exceptional examples experience an inclusive exclusion that goes beyond fighting for basic human rights. The female body in Iran is turned into the topos of all the convergent discriminations implemented at the outset of the 1979 Revolution, and for nearly four decades afterwards. The current “No to Compulsory Veiling” struggle, as an indispensable part of the recent uprisings for “Bread, Jobs, and Freedom,” is equivalent to the battle to dismantle all of the diverse discriminations in an apartheid regime.
The emancipation of Iranians is bound up with the emancipation of women.
Rahman Bouzari is a translator and journalist based in Iran, working for Shargh Daily, one of the most popular reformist newspapers in the country.
Saleh Najafi is a philosophy lecturer and leftist translator based in Iran.
A special thanks to PG for his editorial contributions.