When it comes to Iran, then I can not get over women’s rights and their living conditions. When travelling alone in a different cultural environment, I find it important to position myself inside the local gender roles. A significant part of my travels is often dedicating time to communicate with and get to know local women. Iran is the only country in the world (!) that forces every single woman to cover their hair, neck and body. This applies to all the women in the country, no matter of their origins, religion, marital status etc. The appearance of women is entirely dictated by the government and men, at least this is how it has been for the last 40 years. Even the strictly conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a particular dress code, but it does not force all women to cover their hair. I’m not going to glorify it, it’s not easy. Imagine the hottest summer of your life: 42 degrees of Celsius, the sun is at zenith and your whole body is covered with thick clothes, from the top of your head until your ankles. Indeed, there are many women both in Iran and other countries that prefer this dress style and this shouldn’t be a problem for anyone. However, in Iran, this is not a choice and many women, especially the young local women, feel harassed inside these rules and regulations. The tourists will come and go and their struggles of the past week or two will end by stepping onto a plane in Tehran Airport. (Truly, flying out from Iran is a sight by itself. Stepping onto the plane, women are already undressing themselves and their headscarves-coats-long jackets practically fly into their bags. Indeed, I am always doing the same.) Yet the local women will have to fit into somebody else’s moral standards on daily basis.
The last few years have been interesting in this regard. The local feministic movements have grown rapidly and by now, women protest against the compulsory hijab (the headscarf) on daily basis on the streets of various Iranian cities. The Moral Police, that guards the streets, have extreme measures to punish the protesters. Women are being both imprisoned and publicly beaten up for standing up for their rights. During the last few months, some women have been arrested merely for their social media content, such as dancing on instagram stories or posting photos with their hair showing. As a paradox, seeing what will happen to the protesters, has only encouraged Iranian women – more and more women are standing up against the extremist government and they are ready to face the consequences. It also has a clear effect on the street fashion. Even though not all women are actively protesting, they have gotten more and more flexible with the way their hair and body are covered. The hijab is usually worn at the back of the head, covering merely 1/3 of the hair. Even if the scarf tends to slip off, women are not usually in a hurry by putting it back, but rather they spend a good few minutes completely scarf-less, before finally fixing their hijab. The traditional long black chadors have been replaced by light tunic tops with jeans or leggings underneath. For Iranian women, those little details are symbolic for their freedom. They can not choose their own dress code, however they can allow themselves to have more flexibility than before. While at it, they have also maintained their healthy sense of humour and they are laughing at the tourists that are trying to strictly follow every rule. My local girlfriends often joke that they can always tell tourists apart from locals, because the tourists are dressed in a much more conservative way. During my first trip to Iran, I’m sure that the locals were laughing at me as well. However during this summer, I knowingly decided to take it easier. There were many cafés, restaurants, hostels, public parks and obviously homes, where women let down their headscarves and enjoyed their breezes of freedom. Even at natural sights, like waterfalls, valleys and by the lakes, it was usual to see women, both young and old, laughing in short sleeves and wind in their hair. As a European woman, it was heart warming for me to see the solidarity between women when it came to the dress code – we were all in this together.
In addition to dress code, it has been interesting to see the family life and gender roles in Iran. As appropriate for an islamic state, in Iranian homes, the men are providers and the head of the house. If the men allow, women are also able to work, but the household is still entirely women’s responsibility. I have seen a few of truly vivid examples of these gender roles.
This summer, I spent a few days with a family of 50-year old mother, 30-year old daughter and 25-year old son. The son, as the only man of this family, had three different jobs and was the only financial support of this whole family. The women spent time shopping, watching TV and cooking. Every day, they spent a good 4-5 hours on cooking alone. Whenever the son was home, their whole attention was dedicated to him. In every few hours, the guy was standing in front of the fridge and yelled at his mother to give him some food. Mom came running by, opened the fridge and put food in front his son so he wouldn’t die of starvation. The son was a little bit offended and the mom was seriously surprised when I told them with a chuckle that in Estonia literally every mother would just told their children to help themselves.
It wasn’t only this family. In other homes as well, I continuously witnessed how mothers and daughters spent their whole days in the kitchen, while the father and sons were lying on the floor. Then again, on business days, the situation is different. The men are working for 11 hours and women are bored at home. It has been difficult for me to look past gender equality in these matters, yet I have to admit that usually there is a balance in the household. Even though the gender roles are very strictly in place (there’s no way a man could step his foot into the kitchen!), it seems as people have found a particular comfort in these settings. Thus I dare to believe that the life of Iranian women is not an endless discrimination, but rather like dancing tango. The rules have been tightly set by someone else, but the temper and solidarity of women helps them broaden those horizons further and further.
Surely, I am not saying that dictating the dress code and social roles of women is in any way fair or equal – it clearly is not. (Quite as it is not fair nor equal that some European countries are setting restrictions for women’s dress code.) I strongly think it is shameful that Iran, as the only country in the world, belittles women publicly like this. Then again, I sincerely admire the strong and confident Persian women that are unwilling to stop before they have accomplished comprehensive equality.
For those that are more interested in Iran’s feministic movements, their activist Masih Alinejad has recently published a very thorough book about her own fight against the hijab. By now, the feminist has been banned from Iran and she continues her fight from the distance.