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The Power of Iranian Women

Political ideologies have hijacked the bodies of Iranian women for decades - most notoriously through the veil. Today, Iranian girls and women are subverting the influence an ageing Regime continues to exert on them.

© Lilly Merck

The death of Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022 at the hands of Iran's "morality police" has sparked fervent, large-scale protests across the nation. Leading these protests are Iranian girls and women demanding the fall of the Islamic Regime and its oppressive restrictions on their lives and liberty, chanting the Kurdish slogan of "Women. Life. Freedom."

It's been a long time coming. The sartorial decisions of Iranian women have been assigned a political function long before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, much to the frustration of Iranian women themselves. The arrest and death of Mahsa Amini for showing too much hair speaks to a longstanding, unsolicited power that women hold in challenging the Regime's authority with even the slightest transgressions. Yet even power not asked for is still power.

Unveil for Your Country

Prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran's Pahlavi Dynasty maintained close relations with the US and UK. In an attempt to mirror their Western clothing norms, the Shah banned the veil in 1936, calling it "backwards." Realising that women were able to represent his political ideology in ways that men could not, he stated, "[w]omen must... use the opportunities you have for advancing the country.”

It didn't take long for women to crowd Iran's main streets dressed in Europe’s latest fashions of jeans, blouses, and shirts - and without the veil. Although the law was rescinded 5 years later, the target had been met. The visible similarities this law created between the streets of Iran and the streets of the West strengthened the Shah’s success in the eyes of his allies, making women the visual yardstick by which political progress was measured.

Women who preferred to wear the veil suffered greatly in this time. They were denied service in restaurants or stores, abdicated from government jobs, and for fear of being arrested or harassed by soldiers, were confined to their homes. This robbed primarily lower-class women of their mobility, making them dependent on their husbands, brothers, or fathers in ways they had never been before. In these households, patriarchy intensified, betraying the fact that this law was not necessarily aimed at easing the lives of women, but rather utilizing their bodies to broadcast a political message to a global audience.

Veil for Your Country

Yet the same women who visually represented a Westernised Iran with their clothing eventually served to represent that same Iran’s demise. Widespread dissatisfaction with the Shah led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Khomeini immediately announced the imposition of the veil, stating, “[Women} must be clothed according to religious standards.”

Those who disagreed with this imposition took the streets in protest, clashing with vigilantes who violently attacked unveiled women. Even anti-Shah secularists, frustrated with any resistance to a successful revolution, criticised the protests as collaborating with an imperialist West. Ayatollah Taleghani, a prominent member of the Islamic government at the time, stated in regards to the veiling imposition, “we want to show that there has been a revolution, a profound change.” Veiled women thus became the Regime’s primary means of communicating Iran's “otherness” in relation to Western democracies and its predecessor.

Yet, public aggression in response to mandated veiling forced the Regime to adjust its rhetoric. With the Iran-Iraq War immediately underway, a popular slogan used by the government and soldiers was, “[M]y sister, your veil is even more powerful than my blood,” producing a narrative that stressed the complementary role women played to men in preserving the state in a time of war. Ayatollah Khomeini even stated that women were "vanguards in educating the esteemed society,” acknowledging the vitality of women's allegiance so as to create an atmosphere of social equality, if even superiority. Recognising that an oppressive rhetoric towards women could prove fatal to the Regime's success, it pivoted, inviting women and their veils to wield a unique power in legitimising its own authority - a power that continues to persist.

Enough is Enough

Patriarchy is in no way specific to the Islamic Republic. The entitlement to comment on or regulate how women look and dress is a global phenomenon. Yet, by continuing to obsess over the hair strands of Iranian girls and women today, the greying clerics may have dug their own grave. Having been made a visually defining factor of a "true" Islamic Republic, Iranian women have been armed with an exclusive ability to challenge state authority with what may seem like a trivial rebellion. In other words, to burn a veil in the West will raise eyebrows. To do the same in Iran will start a revolution.

The murder of Mahsa Amini has thus propelled the Iranian people into rage after the Regime's persistent series of economic, political, and pandemic-related mishandlings. With its weak spots exposed, and as the fury among protestors of all ages and genders intensifies, a corrupt and desperate Islamic Republic has resorted to murdering its own citizens in the last weeks, including 16-year-old Sarina Esmailzadeh. Neither the protests nor the violent repression show signs of stopping.

The Regime is right to fear Iranian women, many of whom are highly educated and well aware of the power they hold in bringing about all-encompassing change to their country. A government that has built its very image on the enforced subservience of half the population is fragile and, in due time, doomed to fail. Perhaps that time has come.

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