Frontlines

Iran’s women at a feminist crossroads

Linda McQuaig May 28 1979
Frontlines

Iran’s women at a feminist crossroads

Linda McQuaig May 28 1979

Iran’s women at a feminist crossroads

Frontlines

CLOSEUP

Linda McQuaig

The woman sitting in the back of a taxi in Tehran is plump and pregnant. But covered as she is in the long black Moslem robe, the chador, her bulk isn’t particularly noticeable. That, however, is the only advantage Sadireh Abdullahe sees in wearing the thing.

She had never had a chador on until her wedding day three years ago. Combis, her 29-year-old fiancé, hadn’t even bothered to mention his preference for them before the big day. But no sooner had he slipped the ring on her finger than he announced she would be wearing the chador from then on. “So for three years I’ve had to wear it,” she says, frowning sourly and pulling the long shapeless material together under her chin. “Otherwise we’d just be fighting all the time.”

In Tehran, taxis are customarily shared with strangers and, on this trip, Mrs. Abdullahe doesn’t seem to mind sharing her grievances as well. While &lt she talks, her two-year-old daughter,

dressed in a short, fluffy white dress, jumps up and down beside her on the backseat. Mrs. Abdullahe’s problems began long before the new Islamic regime took power in Iran last February. But thousands of other Iranian women got a taste of her dilemma in March when the word came down from the headquarters of the top spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that all women were to cover their heads. Debate still rages in Tehran over whether this directive actually came from the ayatollah himself or from extremist mullahs (Moslem priests) within his camp. But incensed women didn’t wait

for the details. '

Thousands of them took to the streets for several days of protests and religious leaders, apparently cowed by their vehemence, backed down. But when the demonstrators had all gone home, Sadireh Abdullahe was still wearing her chador. She’ll be wearing it, in fact, for the rest of her life, as long as her husband keeps calling the shots.

The chador is just one of the things he has forced on her; even worse was the girl-friend he brought home for three months. “One day, that girl just came and knocked at the door looking for Combis. I asked her what she wanted, and she told me he was her boy-friend and she was coming to live in the house.” Mrs. Abdullahe wasn’t keen on the idea, of course, but she accepted it, and the 19-year-old moved in. Mrs. Ab-

dullahe then found to her surprise that she got along quite well with her husband’s new fling. “I didn’t fight with that girl. I really liked her. I blame him.” She blamed him enough to want out of the whole deal. “But our families wouldn’t allow a divorce, and . . .” She looks over at her daughter as her sentence trails off.

Mrs. Abdullahe says most Iranian men are not like her husband.

So how did she end up with such a cad? It wasn’t even an arranged marriage; Combis, now a successful 32-year-old factory owner, was her choice. She blushes. “He was very handsome.

Even now, he doesn’t look any older than 25.”

But if Mrs. Abdullahe wears her chador reluctantly, there are plenty of Iranian women who wear it by choice. Among the younger ones particularly, there has been a recent move back to the traditional Moslem garment. In the months leading up to the revolution, thousands of women donned the chador for the first time as a symbol of their opposition to the Western-oriented regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Many returned to Western dress after the Shah’s government came tumbling down. But some have taken on the chador as a permanent outfit. Thofrani Maryam is a 19-year-old student who is gradually moving toward the chador. Her mother wears Western clothes and so did she until recently. Even now, from the knees down she looks like a typical North American teen-ager in her blue jeans and running shoes. But over this she wears a long navy smock, and her dark hair is pulled back tightly under a beige kerchief—a popular halfway measure which covers the head but allows more freedom than the constricting chador. She shrugs when asked why she has taken up her new way of dressing. It certainly wasn’t parental pressure that drove her to it. “I’ve only done it since the revolution, after I started reading the Koran (the Moslem holy book). This way you don’t have to waste time fixing your hair. You can spend that time instead reading or

doing more important things.” The running shoes and jeans will be the next Western trappings to go, she says. “I want to study the Koran even deeper.” At the University of Tehran, the

chador is so prevalent it almost seems like a school uniform. Homa Nateq, a social history professor who wears

Western clothes, explains that for many students the chador remains a political statement to show their support for Eastern civilization, as opposed to consumer-oriented Western culture. Consumerism still thrives, however, on the streets of downtown Tehran. About half the women wear Western clothes, some of them unabashedly fashionable. Tehran boasts a branch of the exclusive French shoes designer Charles ourdan, and spike heels silk blouses are not even underneath In fact, while attention has focused on the long black robe, little has been said about what they wear underneath it— sometimes outfits that would turn heads in Paris and New York. Make-up manufacturers do good business, too, since the chador, unlike women’s robes worn in more restrictive Moslem countries such as Saudi Arabia, usually leaves the face exposed.

In the slums of Tehran, the story is quite different. Virtually all women wear the chador, often holding it together by gripping it in their mouths. The chador is not an issue here. For Delbar Hajabassi, who lives in a shantytown on the outskirts of the city, the blue robe she wears over her head is the least of her worries. With an unemployed husband, her major concern is finding more food for her six children, who subsist now mostly on yogurt and dried bread.

Hoshemi Rafsanjanu, who sits on Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Council, defends the new regime’s attitude toward women. Flanked by his chadorclad wife and daughters, the softspoken religious leader comes out with statements that would please Gloria Steinern. He claims the Islamic republic will safeguard women’s rights. “And not like in the West where women are supposedly free but they are being used economically—like in the cosmetic factories which use women’s bodies to make a lot of money.” But feminists fear extremist elements within the clergy. Newspaper columnist Janet Lazar-

ian Shaghighi says she has heard reports that some villages are discouraging women teachers and are planning to close neighborhoqd nurseries. So far these threats to female job security haven’t gone beyond the rumor stage.

As far as marriage and divorce laws go, again most women are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Nateq says she won’t be upset, however, if the new regime revives the old custom of “temporary marriage” called sigha—a concept which raises eyebrows in the West. Under such arrangements, a man and a woman get “married” for any length of time they want—a year, a day, even an hour. They simply set the time and head to the local mullah for his blessing, though sometimes even that isn’t necessary. The big bonus, as far as women are concerned, is that the children of these marriages are legitimate, and the temporary husband is obliged to support them. Nateq is adamantly opposed to polygamy, a custom that has been declining in Iran in recent generations. But she sees temporary marriage in a different light. Although she herself is

married, full-time, to an economics professor at Tehran university, she thinks temporary marriage can be a healthy arrangement; “It’s just like living with someone. I think it’s very democratic.” Dr. Ali Reza Nourizadeh, editor of the liberal weekly newsmagazine OmicLIran, is more cynical about these temporary liaisons. He points out that many temporary wives are widows who go for the arrangement primarily out of financial need. Temporary marriages are especially popular with mullahs who aren’t allowed to indulge in casual sex randomly, Nourizadeh explains. And, while the mullah must support any offspring from these affairs, he can have a number of temporary wives at once—in addition to his full-time wife, or wives. “There are some women who think the mullah has the sign of God. So if they become pregnant from the mullah they think they will have God’s son, or some bloody thing like this.”

But whatever the new Islamic republic may mean for women, one thing is clear: the Shah’s widely touted reforms for women weren’t what they were

cracked up to be. Nateq, who was imprisoned and tortured under the Shah’s regime, becomes emotional on that subject: “They have written many laws and they said they did so much for women. But really they did nothing.” A woman couldn’t even travel without her husband’s permission: “Under the Shah, nobody had freedom.”

In the taxi, Sadireh Abdullahe is mulling over her dilemma. She’s returning from her husband’s factory. He hasn’t been there since early in the morning, and no one there knew where he had gone. She shrugs her shoulders. She has no idea if he has any new girlfriends now. Does she know that women her age in some Western cities have almost as much sexual freedom as men? Yes, but that doesn’t interest her. “Too much freedom is a bad thing,” she cautions. She adjusts her chador once again and then wraps her arm around her daughter. Mrs. Abdullahe accepts her fate grudgingly, but her little girl’s future is a different matter. “My daughter’s never going to wear the chador. Never.”&lt£>.