There’s a YouTube video of commuters in a subway in Iran, walking down the stairs to a platform, where they cluster, waiting for a train and then, even as you watch, a chorus begins and soon the place is echoing with people, mainly young people, clapping their hands and shouting defiance. The men are in shirtsleeves and trousers, but most of the women are wearing headscarves. There’s another clumsily shot film where you can barely see the assembled people for the darkness, but you can hear them chanting, “Allahu Akbar”, a religious motto that has, in the current crisis, been pressed into the service of political protest.
More than one pundit has argued that the confrontation between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s followers and Mir Hossein Mousavi’s over the former’s controversial election victory isn’t a fight between theocratic Muslims and secular Muslims. The fact that Mousavi is a long-standing member of the political establishment put in place by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution, the ubiquitous headscarves, the carefully Islamic idiom of the protests seem to indicate that this is an attempted reformation of the Islamic Republic, not a secular rejection of it.
Freedom song: Iranian women in Paris protest against the recent election results. Stephane De Sakutin / AFP
For a distant spectator, it’s hard to know if the Islamic style of the people protesting is an expression of their piety or a strategic acknowledgement of the norms imposed by an avowedly Islamic state. I visited Iran as a 15-year-old in the early 1970s, when the country was an anti-clerical monarchy run by an arriviste ruler who, despite the fact that his father had started as a gunnery sergeant in the Iranian army, had just finished celebrating two and a half thousand years of Persian kingship.
In 1972, there wasn’t a headscarf to be seen in Tehran. The Shah’s father, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, had, in a spasm of Atatürkian enthusiasm, banned the veil. His son, keen to be seen as a pro-Western modernizer, ruthlessly enforced the proscription. Women who wore the veil in public had it forcibly removed. In the poorer parts of Tehran, I remember seeing older women wearing the chador in a fugitive way, but younger women dressed in a style that seemed positively daring, at least to my adolescent Indian eyes.
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My abiding memory of Iran is of a place teetering on the edge of lewdness. In a department store, the Furushga Koroush, there was a poster in the sports goods section which had a woman in a bodysuit holding up the five Olympic rings. You had to look twice to see that the rings were intertwined sausages and that the crotch of the bodysuit had been cut out. When we (my parents and my brother) took a coach tour to Isfahan, we dined in a hotel restaurant where dinner was followed by a cabaret performance that was everything two repressed teenagers could have dreamt of.
Later in the tour, we reached Shiraz, where we were taken to the imperial carpet manufactory where we were shown Persian rugs being made. The one on the loom was three-fourths finished and the guide, after taking us through the details of the weaving, asked us to look closely at the pattern on the carpet. We looked and saw no more than the motifs that we associated with carpets. He then took a pointer and showed us that each motif was a sexual tableau designed to look like a conventional floral or geometric design. We were shocked and titillated and entranced.
One lesson of this story is that despotic “modernization” in a conservative society sponsors a permissiveness that invites conservative retribution. The puritanism of the Islamic restoration that replaced the Shah’s regime was clearly a reaction to the grotesque Pahlavi bid to remake Iran in the image of Beirut or Biarritz. But the other thing it demonstrates is the power of the state to determine the way people dress. In the three cities I visited in 1972, I can’t remember young women dressed in a traditional way.
The absence of traditional costume, of the veil, clearly owed something to coercion, just as its pervasive presence in contemporary Iran is related to a bullying moral police, but in both cases there is more than coercion at work. Many young women wore elaborate make-up and Western clothes with great flair and enthusiasm then, and it’s probably true that some modestly veiled women in Tehran today wear the veil because they want to. In authoritarian countries people learn to take their cues from the state and the ideology of the state becomes the common sense of civil society.
In the matter of women’s costumes, the Indian republic has done rather better than the Islamic Republic of Iran. One of the reasons Reza Shah Pahlavi banned the veil was because he thought it was a physical impediment and stopped women from participating fully in “modern” life. I wonder what he would have made of the sari or the dhoti or the salwar-kameez and chunni or the full burqa complete with niqab, all of which you can see every day on India’s streets.
India doesn’t prescribe costumes either to advance modernity or to safeguard modesty. This is not because Indian men are particularly evolved or ardently committed to the right of Indian women to choose what they wear; they’re not. The Sri Ram Sene’s goonery and the behaviour of male lumpen in Indian cities are reminders of that. The reason a conservative, patriarchal country like India doesn’t impose coercive dress codes is because its state is run by a pluralist democracy that has been compelled to acknowledge the variousness of its people in everything from language and religion to dress and deportment. Unlike Iran in the Shah’s time or now, the clothes women wear in India aren’t ideological statements. If the current turmoil in Iran creates a new order where chadors and camisoles can be worn in public without being emblems of defiance or conformity, Mousavi’s movement will be remembered as a milestone in the modern history of a great civilization.
Mukul Kesavan, professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
Write to Mukul at firstname.lastname@example.org