Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Seized - for showing their hair

This is the kind of stuff I hear about happening in Baghdad and Basra, and it makes me angry. Iraqi women always understood that they must wear ibayas (black robes) in Nejef and Kerbala, but Baghdad has always been secular, until recently. Baghdad has been looking more and more like Tehran, and that makes secular Iraqis like me very sad. It is sad that Iraqis must choose between secular tyranny and fundamentalism. I had always hoped that Iraqi law would not be based on Sharia law.

Seized - for showing their hair

The Iranian government's latest act of oppression against the nation's women has taken the form of a high-profile police drive to enforce "correct" Islamic dress codes. In its first few days, last week, the "bad hijab" crackdown netted several thousand young women on the streets of Tehran, with many receiving a warning and several hundred being arrested. Policewomen dressed in black chadors bundled detainees into buses that had been stationed on street corners in advance, before carting them off to police stations. The women were accused of presenting an immodest appearance - allowing their hair to show beneath the obligatory headscarves, wearing manteaus too short to conceal their hips, or wearing tight, revealing jeans and heels.

Those arrested face possible trials and jail sentences. There have even been suggestions that women may be exiled from the city if they reoffend. And it is not only in Tehran that this is happening - the crackdown is being pursued nationwide.

At issue are alleged offences against Islam and sharia law. But the reality is somewhat more complicated. In Iran, the comfort of women is a source of male discomfort.

Sae'ed Mortazavi, Tehran's public prosecutor, made this clear when he told the Etemad newspaper: "These women who appear in public like decadent models, endanger the security and dignity of young men". Mohammad Taqi Rahbar, a fundamentalist MP, agreed, saying, "Men see models in the streets and ignore their own wives at home. This weakens the pillars of family."

A spokesman for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has tried to distance his boss from this politically embarrassing controversy. And the fashion purge has not gone entirely unchallenged. Some academics have been arguing that hijab standards should be maintained by persuasion rather than force. But, as usual in Iran, the police, like other arms of the pervasive security apparatus, do not appear to have taken any notice.

The "bad hijab" crackdown has happened in a country where the historical tendency to treat women as the property of their fathers and husbands has never really gone away. Iranian women's lack of equality is written into law, and, in a thousand customary ways too, they face daily, crushing discrimination.

Bring up the inequalities that Iranian women face, and many Iranians will point out that in some Arab Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, treatment of women is comparatively worse. In Iran women can vote, stand for most public offices, drive, even smoke in public. It is also argued that social boundaries, (relaxed during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005), have not assumed their former rigour despite fears that they would do so following the fundamentalist victory of two years ago, when Ahmadinejad was elected president.

In pre-Khatami times, and especially during the latter years of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founding father of the Islamic republic and Supreme Leader of Iran between 1979 and 1989, modern western dress was not tolerated at all, fewer women's sports were allowed, and sentences of stoning to death for adultery were more common.

Life is better for women in Iran now, but inequalities persist. For example, their inheritance and divorce rights are inferior to those of men, so, when a family legacy is divided, the women get less than the men. Women need written authorisation from their father or husband to get a passport; their court testimony is considered half as weighty as a man's; and they may be forced to submit to male polygamous relationships, which are allowable (although increasingly rare) under sharia law.

Women are encouraged to go to university and stay on to do higher degrees, but not, it is widely believed, to actually join the workforce (where, it is claimed, they are often omitted from official unemployment figures). While professional jobs are scarce for men and women alike, there is cultural and social pressure on girls to stay at home or get married once they finish full-time education. A fully qualified female civil engineer, for example, said she had a choice of teaching or getting married when she graduated. The idea of her actually being allowed to go out and build a dam or a bridge was laughable. In the event, she emigrated to the US and got divorced.

And, just in case a woman should forget her place, if she travels on public transport, she must go to the back of the bus. Even on the hottest, busiest days in Tehran, women of all ages can be seen crammed into the back, many wearing full black chadors, mostly standing shoulder to shoulder, burdened with shopping bags, while the less crowded front of the vehicle is occupied by men, apparently oblivious to the situation behind them.


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