Some strange things occurred in Tehran during the early morning hours of June 22. Iran's soccer team had just defeated the United States in the World Cup, generating spontaneous public celebrations. But as the crowds poured into the streets, some Iranian women defied Islamic law and removed their scarves and chadors, traditional, floor-length veils. Others danced with and even kissed men who were not their husbands. Still others pounded on cars, joyously urging drivers to honk their horns.
Such behavior is forbidden in the strict Islamic Republic, but police and army units on patrol took no action. Many women took off their chadors as a sign not only of celebration but also of disenchantment -- with their lives and with this regime, says Azar Nafisi, a professor of cultural studies at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew the moderate shah of Iran, women have been subjected to a variety of rules, including a dress code, known as hejab. While men can essentially wear what they like, women must wrap their bodies in layers of dark clothing so as to not unnecessarily tempt the opposite sex by showing their feminine features. The code calls for all adult women to cover their heads and part of their faces with either a chador or scarf.
Chador-wearing Iranian girls greet Iranian President Mohammad Khatami during his visit to Turkmenistan in December 1997.
In addition, women are virtually segregated from men in public life, from schools and universities to buses and mosques. Recently, Iran's Majlis, or parliament, approved legislation segregating hospitals by sex.
Socializing is even more restricted. Men and women who are not married cannot hold hands or otherwise touch affectionately in public. Dating does not occur, at least in the open, and most women marry a husband of their parents' choosing.
Laws regarding marriage also leave women at a distinct disadvantage. For instance, men can take multiple wives, as is the custom in many Islamic countries. And they enjoy the right of automatic divorce as well as advantages in cases where both parents want custody of the children. Women, on the other hand, can only obtain a divorce for cause (such as adultery or the taking of a second wife) and must get the approval of the judge.
Under the last shah and his father, the situation was partly reversed. As part of their broader effort to secularize and Westernize Iran, women were encouraged to attend school, even university, and to work outside the home. The wearing of the chador in public was actually prohibited. Edicts were passed giving women more social and economic freedom, including the 1967 Family Protection Bill, which strengthened women's rights in divorce and custody battles.
Many of these changes, including the 1967 law, were reversed after the Islamic Republic was established. According to Johns Hopkins' Nafisi, many Iranian women fought the changes. This was a modern society, and we did not approve of what they were doing, she says. You know, it took four years to enforce the wearing of the chador because there was so much opposition to it among women.
Even today, says Nafisi, who fled Iran two years ago, many women bristle at the requirement. When you see a wisp of hair in front, she says, it is a form of protest.
But women have not been shut out of Iranian society completely. Suffrage is universal, women hold seats in parliament and there is a female Cabinet member, Environment Minister Massoumeh Ebtekar. There are even authorized women's groups and publications seeking to increase women's rights. In addition, most career paths are open to women. And at home, many women wear jeans, skirts and makeup and can be more relaxed with men.
Women are clearly dissatisfied with the situation, says Patrick Clawson, director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. That being said, I think they also realize that they live in a more open society than the Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia, where women aren't even allowed to drive.
Diller, Daniel , The Middle East, Congressional Quarterly Press, 1994. A slightly dated but still useful guide to the politics and culture of the Middle East. The chapter on Iran contains particularly useful information on the country in the 20th century.
Mackey, Sandra , The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation, Plume Press, 1998. Mackey, an Atlanta-based expert on the Middle East, provides an in-depth look at the Iran of yesterday and today, going back to ancient Persia in exploring the roots of Iranian culture. Her chapters on the Pahlavis are particularly clear and insightful. The 1998 edition (the book was originally published in 1996) contains an additional chapter on recent events in Iran, including the election of President Khatami.
Jehl, Douglas , Iranians Still Warily Await Reforms They Voted For, The New York Times, Oct. 11, 1997. Jehl examines the expectations of the Iranians who voted for and support President Khatami.
Lancaster, John , Barbie, 'Titanic,' Show Good Side of 'Great Satan,' The Washington Post, Oct. 27, 1998. Lancaster details the impact of Western culture -- but particularly the United States -- on Iran. He observes that ordinary Iranians love all things American, from movies and music to computers and other high-tech gadgets.
Omestad, Thomas , Wrestling with Tehran, U.S. News & World Report, March 2, 1998. Omestad examines how sporting events and other opportunities for cultural contact are beginning to melt the usually icy relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic.
Perkovich, George , In Iran, Whispers of Moderation, The Washington Post, Nov. 30, 1997. Perkovich details a growing sense in Iran, especially among intellectuals, that the country is entering a period that will be characterized by moderation and a striving for normalcy.
Pomper, Miles , Warmer U.S.-Iranian Relations Get Cold Shoulder in Congress, CQ Weekly, May 16, 1998. Pomper examines the debate within the United States over its relations with Iran, focusing on the strong opposition from Capitol Hill to the Clinton administration's efforts to foster greater dialogue with the Iranians.
Sciolino, Elaine , The Post-Khomeini Generation, The New York Times, Nov. 1, 1998. Sciolino focuses on the hopes of young Iranians, who make up the majority of the nation's population. She concludes that while not rebelling outright, [the young] reject the stern restrictions of the Islamic Republic and demand more freedom and prosperity.
Wright, Robin , Iran Says U.S. is Imperiling Move Toward Rapprochement, Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1998. Wright details the trip-wires and mines on the path toward better relations between the U.S. and Iran.
Shaul Bakhash , The U.S. and Iran: An Offer They Can't Refuse, Foreign Policy, fall 1997. Wright and Bakhash, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a professor of history at George Mason University, respectively, appraise the opportunities presented to Iran and the United States by the election of President Khatami. They argue that Khatami must make gestures on human rights and other issues and that Washington must be alert to these shifts and help to accelerate them by responding appropriately.
Reports and Studies
David Menashri; , Iran and Khatami: A Political, Economic, and Military Assessment, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998. This is a good geopolitical assessment of Iran today. In particular, Kanovsky, a professor of economics at Bar Ilan University in Israel, offers a lucid analysis of Iran's grave economic problems.
Kemp, Geoffrey , America and Iran: Road Maps and Realism, The Nixon Center, 1998. Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center, takes a close look at U.S.-Iran relations. He is not very optimistic about the short-term prospects for better relations. So long as there is domestic turmoil in Tehran and a pervasive anti-Iranian sentiment in the U.S. Congress, neither Khatami nor Clinton can go much further than they have today in improving relations, he writes.