by Azadeh Fatehrad

Figure 1. Azadeh Fatehrad (2015). Departure series. Photograph. Tehran. 

Dr Azadeh Fatehrad is senior lecturer at Kingston University, London. Her auto-ethnographic research explores still and moving image archives investigating the ways in which the feminist movement has been expanded among urban middle class women in her home country of Iran. As part of her research, Fatehrad have worked with Archiv für Forschung und Dokumentation Iran (AFDI) in Berlin (National Unity of Women's Associations), the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam (Sediqeh Dowlatabadi's Archive), and the Feminist Library in London (Adventures in the Archives). She on the editorial Board for peer reviewed journal MAI: Feminism & Visual Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden. Fatehrad is recipient of research grant Understanding Communities Fund (2022) by The British Academy and The Nuffield Foundation. She is co- founder of Herstoriographies: The Feminist Media Archive Research Network. Her publications including ‘Migration: Sculpture of Uncertainty’ (2021) by Arts Cabinet, and ‘Sohrab Shahid Saless-Exiles: Displacement and the Stateless Moving Image' (2020) by Edinburgh University Press and The Poetics and Politics of the Veil in Iran: An Archival and Photographic Adventure (2019) by Chicago University Press, among others.
Editors’ note: This piece was written before the death of Mahsa Amini and the women-led uprising that followed.

My practice-based research explores the lives of women in Iran through the social, political, and aesthetic contexts of veiling, unveiling, and re-veiling. In my projects, I look at the object of repression (the veil) in the history of Iran through a perspective of ‘indirection,’ i.e., from a particular position of fascination and envy — and I suggest a dimension of beauty and desire. Even though, for Western readers, it might be more comfortable were I to follow the familiar discourse of condemning the hijab and standing defiantly against the compulsory dress code, while I do naturally recognize the extent of the oppression that exists in Iran and I am personally very much against the enforcement of any dress code, the specific aim of my research is to explore the affective and imaginary dimensions of the acts of covering and uncovering. Therefore, in exploring women’s lives in post-revolutionary Iran, I consider the role of the found image and the relationship between the archive and the present, resulting in an illuminating history of feminism in Iran in the twenty-first century.

The act of covering has been an interesting and noticeable feature in the history of Iran. The compulsory wearing and removal of the veil that hides the hair and body of women has been introduced and repealed many times throughout Iran’s history, beginning with Reza Shah’s 1936 ban on the head scarf and chador as part of his secularizing project. [1]This position is, of course, in stark contrast to what occurred some 40 years later when, following the 1979 Revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini reversed this decision and decreed that women should now cover their heads.

During the twentieth century in Iran, the meaning of hijab went through several transformations. Unveiled women represented the secular and Westernized regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Then, after 1979, ‘wrapped in a black chador,’ these women became icons of the Islamic Revolution and, two decades later, their more relaxed, colourful and vibrant hijabs became the symbol of a new era of progress and reform in the Islamic Republic (1997–present).

The restrictions on clothing for women in Iran are based on governmental ‘authoritative politics,’ which turns fashion into a political statement. Iranian women today publicly express their resistance to the authorities and the conditions imposed on them in an aesthetic way, appropriating the very object of oppression (the veil) and turning it into an object of aesthetic pleasure and beauty. After the Revolution (i.e., after 1997), women could not “wear obvious colours, make-up, perfume or anything that might attract the attention of the Basij or ‘moral police.’” [2]  ‘Black from head to toe’ is an expression that is commonly used to describe the woman’s body covered in the full veil, but in reality, this was not the case. In fact, women could wear a long, loose garment and long headscarf, as long as it was a dark colour, such as dark blue, black, or gray. The expression thus more accurately refers to the idea of fundamentalists (Islamists) strongly encouraging women to wear dark colours, rather than referring solely to the full veil.

Nowadays, on the streets of Tehran, one can see the Islamic urban landscape embodying different degrees of Islam in terms of women’s dress code. There is an increasing mix of dress codes on the street: veiled women in black, walking alongside women wearing brightly colored garments and headscarves and heavy make-up with additional high heels, side slits, or denim. The black veils seen are the pure representation of the Islamic state, whereas the other woman on the street is an indication of the processes of re-interpretation and appropriation of the dress codes that were originally set by the Islamic state. All these different ways of wearing the covering/hijab come to represent an aspect of the Islamic urban space, in which a tension between concealing and showing, seeing and not seeing, is expressed. We can argue here that Iranian women of today are appropriating the most visible political statement at their disposal, i.e., clothing. Women are not fully exposed, but they are partly exposed. There is no clear Islamic and non-Islamic dress code amid this fashionable clothing; rather, all dress codes seen are a version or expression of the Islamic dress code, creating different shades of gray, rather than simply black or white.

In this way, the hijab is turned into a fashion accessory, i.e., something that can be added to complete or complement an outfit. This use will typically have a young, modern, perhaps Western feel to it. This mix or combination of fashions is not unique to Iranian women; it can, in fact, be seen among any Muslim women who are modest dressers. On the other hand, the political scientist Norma Claire Moruzzi [3]  refers to the distinct role of the veil in higher education settings in Iran, which can be categorized into three dimensions: (1) as a form of dress for young women from outside Tehran who will eventually transition to other forms of hijab, (2) as a marker that a student is from a poor or traditional family, or (3) as a claim of social distinction for an upper class Tehrani student. Therefore, even though it is designed to be modest clothing for all, the veil could potentially reveal a class hierarchy at university (and at work), if one considers the quality and cost of the veil, since it could be made of very expensive silk crepe or inexpensive polyester. [4]  
Figure 2. Women’s demonstration in Iran (2015). Tehran. ©Archiv für Forschung und Dokumentation Iran (AFDI) in Berlin

Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi, a noted Iranian feminist and sociologist, remarks, “in the past two decades, gradual transgressions of Urf and Shari’a have become a sign of modernity and resistance for many women and young people who wish to generate changes in their situation.” [5] Traditionally, the hijab has stood for modest clothing and has been a mark of a woman’s social and economic status. In Farsi, poshesh (‘clothing’) derives from the verb pushidan, meaning to cover up or conceal from view, whereas the English term ‘dress’ refers, among other things, to decorating or adorning. Historically, during the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1789 to 1925, many women wore the chador. The chador (‘tent’ in Persian), which is made of a single, large semicircle of fabric, dates back to at least the tenth century.[6] Before 1936, middle- and upper-class urban women would wear full-length, head-to-toe clothing and occasionally even an additional face covering called a pichih. The hijab for peasant and tribal women who worked mostly in the fields consisted of a colorful rusari (‘headscarf’) and loose clothing, which provided them with more freedom of movement than the floor-length chador and, therefore, greater comfort. Sharm, referring to a combination of charm and shame, connotes modesty, timidity, and being soft-spoken; this notion remains one of the most valued qualities in a traditional Iranian woman. As such, mothers had trained girls to “[...] be humble, feeble, servile and dull. Therefore, the dominant feelings in their minds were self-disparagement, fear, and submissiveness.” [7] At the turn of the century, the more covered a woman was and the more sharm she displayed in her behavior and demeanor, the higher her social status was deemed to be.

However, these traditional beliefs are no longer held by the new generation and many young people have found a way to transgress these barriers, albeit strictly underground. Indeed, my visit to Tehran in 2015 differed greatly from the picture I had in my mind of my previous visits. I encountered open and relaxed male/female relationships being conducted behind closed doors in homes and in private companies. Parties in the lobbies of the modern tower blocks and buildings in West/North Tehran were now being attended by men and women alike, who were dressed up for the occasion. Women at those parties could be seen wearing backless or strapless tops and dresses, miniskirts, skinny jeans, and glamorous make-up with no head covering. Comparisons can be made to London’s Soho on a Saturday night, the only difference being that, in Tehran, these parties take place clandestinely, out of sight of the moral police.

Figure 3. Azadeh Fatehrad (2015). Departure series. Photograph. Tehran. ©Azadeh Fatehrad

“Iranian women today publicly express their resistance to the authorities and the conditions imposed on them in an aesthetic way, appropriating the very object of oppression (the veil) and turning it into an object of aesthetic pleasure and beauty.”

There is drinking, dancing, flirting, and sometimes even kissing at these mixed-sex parties. The male gaze on these occasions might, therefore, be lustful and seductive, fueled by lavish libidinal encounters. This is arguably harmless and merely a case of men enjoying women’s company and vice versa. It is certainly the norm in the Western world. But it is in stark contrast to the gaze of the moral police, who sometimes violently and aggressively break up these gatherings. Their contemptuous, disdainful attitude is typically directed at the women in the group, rather than the men, as the moral police believe these women have shamed and humiliated themselves.

In this context, it is important to address that the expression of desire between members of the same sex, even at these somewhat ‘modern’ parties, is mostly avoided, the reason being that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) relationships in Iran are illegal and can be punishable by death. In fact, not only are these groups excluded from joining, or at least fully enjoying, these parties, but they also suffer other major setbacks, both in their private and public lives. Therefore, despite the fact that these relationships do exist in Iran and that there are people with non-conforming gender identities, it is primarily the male gaze on women that is evident at these mixed parties.

Despite the potential danger, it seems as though, these days, a large section of the middle-class youth is able to enjoy quite an extreme, albeit secret, private life. Aside from the limitations on the LGBT community, this makes me wonder what barriers really exist in Iran today. When inside people’s homes, I was reminded of the London lifestyle, but its Islamic counterpart does continue to prevail on the streets of Tehran. Each time I visit my home city I seem to encounter more and more conflicting and bizarre combinations of fashion, trends, and lifestyles. It seems that there is a duality between being inside and outside the home, a lavish rebellious life led underground away from the moral police and a parallel life in line with Islamic rules conducted above ground.

Returning to dress, inappropriate dress may be any form of covering apart from the veil that, in Islamic society, represents a sort of aesthetic or moral failure, not a successful act of women’s empowerment. The improperly veiled woman, referred to as ‘bad hijab,’ stands in opposition to the fully covered woman, ‘good hijab.’ However, when it comes to the workplace, both styles “can signal or create social distinction by taking advantage either of religious institutionalized aesthetic authority or of western aesthetic authority.”[8]

Figure 4. Azadeh Fatehrad (2015). Departure series. Photograph. Tehran. ©Azadeh Fatehrad

Over the past 80 years, the condition of unveiling (1936) or veiling (1979) has been violently imposed on women in Iran by the political powers. What should be remembered is that, while these changes in everyday living conditions took place overnight, the individual psychological and emotional response did not follow the same timeframe. Thus, women of my society typically experience a deeply rooted anxiety at the potential loss of cultural barriers, an anxiety best encapsulated in the ever-present concerns about what others might consider to be good and bad behavior, and which cultural norms are acceptable and which are not. Farzaneh Milani notes that “women have been veiled and unveiled by force but they will remain enfolded and covered by physical and psychological traces of their modes of acceptance or rejection of the veil.”[9] This description of women responding to veiling in its physical and metaphorical forms raises a very contemporary concern. I myself can very much relate to this quote, in that I live in a comparatively free society in the United Kingdom and struggle to unfold layers of immaterial veil that cloak my every behavior. The veil might have been forced upon me by the political/religious powers in Iran, but even away from them, the manners, behaviors and views attached to years of wearing or not wearing the covering cannot be done away with so easily, certainly not overnight. Veiling is perhaps one of the most symbolically significant structures of a complex cultural heritage that expresses, among other things, Iran’s prevailing attitude towards the self and the other.

In recent years, there has been a major shift in the way the veil is perceived by women. No longer solely an instrument of their segregation, it has come to facilitate women’s access to the public arena and has given them a means to renegotiate boundaries. For instance, there are numerous advisory roles for women, as many governors need an advisor on women’s affairs, so many women use the chador to gain access to leadership roles in government. The traditional equation of veiled=absent is no longer as clear or as immutable as it once was. Now a woman can be veiled and also have a public voice and presence, meaning that the situation today is double-edged. There is no state of full or absolute ‘veiled-ness’ or ‘unveiled-ness’; whether veiled or unveiled, there is constant oscillation.[10]
Figure 5. Azadeh Fatehrad (2015). Falling series. Photograph. Tehran. ©Azadeh Fatehrad

Notes: Fashion as Political Statement in Post-Revolutionary Iran

[1] Ali Razi, Tarih-I-Mofassal-I-Iran (The Complete History of Iran) (Tehran: Eghbal and Shorakae Publication, 1956), 659–64

[2] Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi, ‘Transgression in Narration: The Lives of Iranian Women in Cyberspace’, in ‘Innovative Women: Unsung Pioneers of Social Change’, special issue, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies Vol. 4 No. 3 (Fall 2008), 80–118.

[3]  Norma Claire Moruzzi, Trying to Look Different: Hijab as the Self-Presentation of Social Distinctions (Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 2008), 225-234.

[4] Elizabeth M. Bucar, Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 48.

[5]Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi, ‘Transgression in Narration: The Lives of Iranian Women in Cyberspace’, in ‘Innovative Women: Unsung Pioneers of Social Change’, special issue, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies Vol. 4, No. 3 (Fall 2008), 89.

[6] Bucar, Pious Fashion, 26–27.

[7] Badr ol-Moluk Bamdad and Nasin Rahimieh, From Darkness into Light: Women’s Eman- cipation in Iran (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1980), 18

[8] Bucar, Pious Fashion, 49–50.

[9]Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 235–38.

[10]  Nima Naghibi, Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 39.

Additional References
Matin, Mahnaz and Mohajer, Naser. Iranian Women's Uprising March 8th 1979 Vol. I: Renaissance. Cologne: Nuqt.a Publishing, 2010.

Moulder, Michele, Boiasuna, Sylvia, Mular, Claudine and Rey, Sylven. ‘The Only Video Evidence of That Historical Moment’. YouTube. Last modified 20 April 2015.

Nawai, Shahin. ‘Le Comité des Femmes Contre la Lapidation, Paris’. 8 March 2015. Video, 12 01:01:49.

Issue 12 ︎︎︎ Border Garments: Fashion, Feminisms, & Disobedience
Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement
Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement

Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016