Bloomberg News

Iran Women Bare Necks in Moderation Before New President (1)

July 18, 2013

Iranian Women Baring Necks in Sign of Moderation

The way women dress is a political marker in Iran, where policies and the enthusiasm of enforcement have changed with leaders since the 1979 revolution. Photographer: Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

Summer in Tehran can be tough on women, as temperatures rise and the Islamic Guidance Patrols are on the lookout for citizens who might be persuaded by the heat to ignore -- more than usual -- Iran’s dress code.

This summer’s different. In the pause between the June 14 election of a new president, Hassan Rohani, and the Aug. 3 exit of the old, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the green and white vans of the fashion police are rare sights. Women, who are expected to conceal their hair and body shapes, are taking advantage.

“Finally, we can breathe,” said Parvin, a 56-year-old wearing a zebra-themed headscarf tied so that it failed to hide her neck as she shopped for groceries. Like others interviewed, she declined to give her last name for fear of reprisal.

“Who knows what Rohani will do as a president?” she said. “But so far, he’s come across as more understanding.”

The answer is crucial for women who chafe at the rules and conventions that restrict their freedom to choose a career or show some ankle. While they use the summer hiatus to don cloaks made of see-through linen or silk and adorned with glitzy beads, they’re prepared for a crackdown.

“Ahmadinejad in the beginning said he didn’t care about what people wear, but it turned out to be the opposite,” said Hanieh, a 30-year-old architect in a coat that opened to reveal a pair of skinny jeans as she drove to work. “We are in a transition period between the two presidents, and they have more important things to worry about.”

Fashion Police

Rohani, a Scottish-educated lawyer and cleric, may be a departure from Ahmadinejad, whose anti-Israel rhetoric and questioning of the Holocaust during his two terms in office helped make Iran a pariah.

Courting the women’s vote, Rohani talked about creating more job opportunities for them while “the other candidates saw women’s active participation in society as a threat,” said Nayereh Tavakoli, a Payam Nour university professor and member of the Iran Sociological Association women’s studies committee.

The 64-year-old president-elect pledged to reduce what he called the government’s “attack against people’s privacy.” He was quoted during the campaign by Khabar Online as saying that Iran “can’t solve cultural problems through police force,” and on Twitter seemed to question the Islamic Guidance Patrols, also known as the fashion or morality police. “If someone doesn’t comply with rules for clothing, that person’s virtue shouldn’t come under question,” a July 3 tweet from his office said.

The way women dress is a political marker in Iran, where policies and the enthusiasm of enforcement have changed with leaders since the 1979 revolution. “There have always been differences about what’s acceptable,” Tavakoli said, and Rohani’s government could be another turning point.

Shunning Lipstick

In the 1980s, while the republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, held the position of supreme leader, women were shrouded in dark chadors or billowy blouses over loose-fitting slacks, and were supposed to shun nail polish and lipstick, even perfume. They could be arrested for showing a wisp of hair.

“Unveiled women represented Western values, which the Islamic regime wished to eradicate,” said Faegheh Shirazi, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of “The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture.”

As standards relaxed -- and women, mostly in urban areas, tested the fashion limits -- colorful scarves and shawls appeared, negligently wrapped around heads and shoulders. During the eight-year presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005 and was known as the “father of reforms,” jeans became common, and long-sleeved tops grew more fitted. Women would venture out with bare ankles -- and sometimes calves.

Closed Sandals

The administration of Ahmadinejad, Khatami’s successor, clamped down, and Capri trousers, open-toed sandals and loud colors could once again be infractions. His ministries also banned women from studying dozens of subjects, including oil engineering and nuclear physics, citing high unemployment in the fields as justification.

Shahla Ezazi, a sociologist and a lecturer at a Tehran university, told a meeting of women’s rights activists and Rohani’s representatives that she hoped the new president will reverse restrictions imposed by Ahmadinejad’s government.

‘Older Brother’

“It seems like in these eight years, officials came up with the idea that if men don’t want to control the women in their families and keep them at home, the government should play the role of the father or the older brother and keep them in check in the public domain,” Ezazi was quoted as saying in a July 3 report on the Focus on Iranian Women website.

While women are allowed to vote and drive, they’re segregated on buses, mosques and public pools and forbidden from entering sports stadiums to watch male teams play. They’re educated separately from as early as primary school.

About 52 percent of university graduates in 2009 and 68 percent of science graduates were women, according to data for the most recent year available by the Paris-based UN Education Scientific and Cultural Organization. In 2011, women accounted for 27 percent of the workforce.

Sweeps for the inadequately covered tend to increase in the summer, when temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in Tehran. Patrol vans are usually prominently parked outside shopping malls and cinemas. Women may be stopped just for questioning or taken into custody; punishment is usually a scolding or a fine, and they’ll be asked to sign a document acknowledging that they weren’t in modest attire.

No Definition

There’s no one written code that defines what that is. Conservatives and progressives in Iran tend to disagree whether only the black, heavy and to-the-floor chador should be acceptable or if coats and scarves are sufficient protection.

Noushin, a 32-year-old graphic designer in Adidas sneakers and black leggings, said she’s optimistic moderation will prevail under Rohani, whose slogan was “prudence and hope.” He won 50.7 percent of the vote in a victory that wasn’t predicted by polls published in state-run media.

“Rohani understands the importance of freedom for people, that the government needs people’s backing,” said Noushin, wearing a pink shawl from which strands of hair stuck out. “And women are half the population.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ladane Nasseri in Dubai at lnasseri@bloomberg.net; Yeganeh Salehi in Tehran via Dubai newsroom at yalehi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net


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