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Of headscarves and men

Monday, May 19, 2008 

Both in Iran and Turkey, men have defined what 'virtue' is, and sought to impose their ideas, all along declaring that they are the true liberators of women


A major hotel in Tehran welcomes its guests with a large and lighted sign post that states:

Dear guests, Hijab (Islamic veil) is a magnificent reflection of the culture of Iranian Muslim women. So we appreciate your respect to our own Islamic civilization and culture.

I first saw this sign some years ago but didn't think too much about it. However, as I have increasingly been fascinated with the discourses used by countries and politicians to communicate their policies and convince others, a familiar object turned into a day-long obsession during a recent trip to Iran. The more I thought about it, the more absurd it started to sound.

Culture or law?:

To be fair, a host country has every right to ask its visitors to respect its cultural norms. For example, given the country I travel in I may decide against wearing shorts and seeking out Martinis. (That's also why I continue to keep Her Majesty's government responsible for allowing pink-roasted drunk English men walk around half naked in the middle of our cities at the first sign of sunshine.) However, a female foreigner visiting Iran need not be reminded of not causing a stir by showing some hair or skin, as it is required and enforced legally to wear a hijab. Thus, the sign post is rather ironic, if not redundant.

On a deeper level, cultural expressions are not codified and legalized practices. They are merely present, followed by some, ignored by the rest. The hijab was made compulsory at a certain point in history, thus it isn't necessarily a natural Iranian way of life. And any women who do not follow the imposed rule will suffer its consequences. Once in Iran, I witnessed the aggression of officials as they were trying to push two young girls into a van. Their crime was to wear sandals and headscarves which didn't cover all of their hair under the hot Persian sun. I hardly slept that night, as the innocent expression on the faces of the arrested girls occupied my mind.

Although headscarves are cultural expressions in rural areas across North Africa and the Middle East, the moment the political sovereign intervenes and dictates their use, it ceases to be cultural and turns into political regulation. In other words, it is the men-with-beards that have defined for the Iranian women how they should dress and live, claiming to do so to protect their "virtue" and culture.

Just north of Iran, in the land of my birth and first kiss, men-without-beards also decide how women should dress or express themselves. Unlike Iran, the arguments in Turkey are not about protecting women's "virtue" or some mythical essential culture but politicization of headscarves. It is said that in principle men of power have no problems allowing women to wear what they wish, but they are only limiting the access of women to education and work because headscarves have turned out to be political symbols.

There are serious problems in this line of thought just as in culture-talk in Iran. First of all, so what if something is used as a political symbol? We live in a democratic country which constitutionally gives the individual the right to political expression by voting, joining political parties and running for elections. Thus, to ban headscarves on the basis of their political nature is to contradict our very own political system.

Iran and Turkey, similar?:

More importantly, if the headscarves have turned out to be political � in other words, if the women who wear them started demanding equal rights and treatment � it is not because of Islam and Islamism. It is the sovereign who has banned the headscarves. Thus by entering the personal sphere and trying to regulate religious practices that transcend domestic politics, men have first made headscarves political and then sought to legitimize their sovereignty on the grounds that they are now political symbols.

Just as watching Iranian women arrested for not dressing up properly breaks my heart into pieces, to witness hundreds of thousands of women denied entry to university, or forced to remove their headscarves in humiliation, breaks my heart. Both in Iran and Turkey, men have defined what "virtue" is or how a woman should live, and sought to impose their ideas, all along declaring that they are the true liberators of women. Year 2008! Women still stand naked in this part of the world, ready to be dressed (or undressed) and led as men wish.  

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