Of silk scarves and chadors

Beware of oversimplifying the symbolism of Iranian women's head coverings in opposition protests

Published June 18, 2009 12:01PM (EDT)

Swelling crowds, burning cars, baton-wielding police, bloodied protesters -- these are some of the most arresting images of the unrest currently rocking Iran. Some comparably peaceful images, though, seem to be competing for some people's attention: Those of the Iranian women on the front lines of the movement against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. From the New York Times to Flickr, images abound of young women wearing sunglasses, bright red nail polish and colorful, loosely tied head scarves -- some pinned back, a la Audrey Hepburn, to reveal a sweep of highlighted or teased hair. Others, with their hijab nudged back on their head and green bands wrapped around their foreheads, look like fierce warriors. In contrast, we've seen images of Ahmadinejad's heavily cloaked female supporters. But the opposition movement is no longer "just young, liberal rich kids anymore," reports the Associated Press, even conservative married women in black chadors are joining the protest.

The range of images of modern Iranian women is as expansive as that black, encompassing fabric. Of course, as always, the same is true of Western readings of these snapshots. In a props-worthy post, Jezebel's Megan Carpentier calls out one of the most common reactions to the heavily made-up young women: They're so pretty! She sasses back, "Perhaps some don't realize that's part of the point?" Indeed, one of the many ways Ahmadinejad has erased women's rights is by sending the moral police after signs of "prettiness." Those wearing head scarves that let hair peek out, tight clothing, tops that don't reach mid-thigh, flashy makeup and bright nail polish have been severely punished. "So, when you see this woman with red fingernails, she's not just risking arrest for holding that sign, she's risking it for the shade of her nail polish," writes Carpentier.

That's just as true for the many women photographed in their slightly revealing head scarves and bombshell makeup. To steal the name of a great book by Azadeh Moaveni, you might call it a "lipstick jihad," and it's been going on for some time now. This is an unintended consequence of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. As the state has cracked down on their dress and behavior, women have quietly protested -- for example, by wearing lacy lingerie under the required curve-concealing garments. The face-framing dress code has led some to wear dramatic makeup, while others go for face-perfecting plastic surgery. (It's part of why Iran is the nose-job capital of the world.) And, similar to certain extreme U.S. conservatives who channel their self-imposed repression into scandalous, closeted behavior, there are plenty of reports of rebellious sex parties, anonymous hookups and premarital sex among Iran's young adults.

That said, it's worth taking caution against oversimplified interpretations of these photos. It's impossible to know whether, say, this young woman is wearing her patterned, loose-fitting scarf as an enthusiastic nationalistic statement against fundamentalism, or because she's afraid that going without will result in her arrest -- or something else entirely. Carpentier links to a truly excellent post on Threadbare, a blog written by two women who "write and teach the politics of fashion and beauty," that succinctly explains the interpretation problem: The presentation of this symbolic image in the Western media "condenses a wealth of historical references, political struggles, and aesthetic judgments." The shallow outsider interpretation is: Oh, look, they're aligning themselves with the West. That puts it in the wrong context and ignores the complex history of the head scarf in Iran, where women have been punished both for going uncovered and covered.

Personally, as a symbol, I like to think of a woman in a chador alongside a young lady in a silk scarf: These women are wildly different, but they're both protesting what they believe to be a corrupt election.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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