Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling, and Reveiling

Hamideh Sedghi, Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling, and Reveiling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

It is a commonplace in political gender studies that women’s bodies, both symbolically and literally, are often the terrain on which different forces struggle for state control, consolidation, and legitimacy. Hamideh Sedghi writes with a dual purpose in this book: to demonstrate within gender studies that to understand these state contests over control of women’s bodies, we must understand their connections to historical political economy, both domestic and international; and to demonstrate to those who study the state that they will never understand historical developments in Iran – or elsewhere – unless they gender their analyses.

She makes a strong case for both these arguments, drawing on extensive documentation, many Persian sources not previously accessed, letters, journals, poetry and other writings of Iranian women, extensive interviews, and her own experiences growing up in Iran, along with the experiences of her grandmother, mother and sisters. She combines historical narratives with sharp portraits of individual women, showing the various ways in which Iranian rulers – from the Qatar dynasty of the 19th century through the Pahlavi monarchies of the 20th to the Islamic Republic since 1979 – have deployed, manipulated, used and abused constructions of “women” for their own political purposes, and the changing ways in which women have asserted their own political agency both against and in support of those state projects.

Much has been written in the West about the Islamic Republic’s reveiling, resegregation by gender, reinstatement of discriminatory laws, and repression of feminist dissent and protest. Sedghi, although clearly taking a critical feminist stance toward the rule of the mullahs, puts these policies into a historical context that emphasizes the coerciveness of unveiling under the Pahlavi Shahs as well as the coerciveness of reveiling under the mullahs. She argues that control over women has been used by both the “modernizing” constitutional monarchy and the “traditionalizing” Muslim clergy in their battles with each other for control of the Iranian state.

The Pahlavis successfully “emasculated the clergy” with their unveiling edicts in the 1930s, expansion of women’s education and labor force recruitment, reforms of marital and property law, and establishment of women’s suffrage and citizenship, reforms that accompanied the monarchy’s land reforms directed against clerical land ownership. The White Revolution – posed oppositionally against both the “red” revolutions of socialism and the “black” revolution sought by the clergy – was inaugurated by the second Pahlavi Shah after the CIA overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh’s National Front Party government in 1953. The mullahs in turn consolidated their triumph over the monarchy after 1979 by reversing those legal, social and economic reforms and consolidating their power over law, land and women, reinscribing the “pure” veiled Muslim woman as the iconic image of Iran.

In assessing the basis of support for reveiling, Sedghi suggests a valuable future line of inquiry: the extent to which the Pahlavi emanicipation project “emasculated” men in general, producing an eventual backlash in the form of (many) men’s strong support for reveiling. In exploring (some) women’s support for reveiling, Sedghi describes very clearly, and sympathetically, the class and cultural cleavages among women that lead them to divergent, even oppositional, positions on gender issues. The analysis, however, might have been carried further. A more nuanced theorization of “patriarchy” as including generational as well as gender hierarchies could offer more explanatory power for the divisions Sedghi describes among women. Although in patriarchal societies senior men may hold the greatest power over the labor and sexuality of women and of junior men, senior women in extended-family households in many societies hold authority over younger women’s labor as well as their sexuality, and sometimes have some authority over younger men as well. Exercising such authority offers women benefits beyond the “patriarchal bargain” of trading freedom for material security. Identifying internal household dynamics beyond “male domination” potentially provides a material explanation for (some) women’s support of patriarchal relations, an alternative to unsatisfactory claims about “false consciousness.”

Sedghi concentrates on the previously understudied Pahlavi periods, arguing that although independent feminist activists in the 1920s campaigned for women’s rights and unveiling, by the mid-1930s the feminist project had been taken over by the state. From a progressive feminist perspective, “state feminism” in Iran provides a striking cautionary tale. As the Pahlavi monarchy became increasingly repressive after its 1953 reinstatement by force, “feminism” came to be narrowly defined by collaborators with the monarchy (my language – Sedghi calls them “conformists”). Feminists independent of the state were silenced, and Ashraf Pahlavi, the Shah’s twin sister, who had been centrally involved in the CIA overthrow of the democratic government, became the head of the only legitimate Iranian women’s organization. She represented “Iranian women” at international women’s conferences, praising women’s gains under the Shah, while (Left) feminists working in opposition to the Shah were, along with male dissidents, harassed, arrested, tortured, murdered or driven into exile.

The Pahlavi policies appealed to those urban, educated, elite and middle-class women who were willing to ally themselves with a repressive, U.S.-linked government (implicitly, through silence, if not overtly), and willing to ignore, as the government did, the plight of poor women (and men), a majority of the urban population. Poor women, many never having unveiled and continuing to wear the chador, turned, with their husbands, to the mosques for support, and became strong supporters of the mullahs’ religious and anti-U.S. challenge to the monarchy. Sedghi argues that the majority of urban women in fact favored the “protection” offered by veiling, gender segregation, the household, and the material support for wives required by Islam, especially given the absence of state policies focused on their economic needs.

Absent a strong, above-ground Left opposition, which might – through women’s active engagement with their male comrades – have produced arguments that linked women’s emancipation with socialism, democracy and anti-U.S. imperialism, available public discourse in Iran posed feminism against anti-imperialism. Sedghi would, I think, emphasize the “might,” as she points out that when women “reformers” marched, protested, and petitioned against the reveiling edicts, they were not supported by male Leftists. Since Sedghi focuses on the state policies of veiling, unveiling, and reveiling, her treatment of the history and development of the Left is brief, leaving much to be explored about gender politics within the Iranian Socialist Party, the Tudeh Party, Mossadegh’s National Front, and the Iranian exile student movement. Within the Islamic Republic women’s protests against reveiling were crushed, some women were arrested, tortured, executed (after being raped, if virgins, on the clergy’s argument that virgins must be “fulfilled” before death); many others simply retreated into silent opposition or escaped into exile.

Sedghi emphasizes women’s agency throughout her analysis, showing the continuing ferment of feminist ideas through periods of both emancipation and repression, always connecting political with economic agency. In the current period she points to the loosening of controls over women under the pressure of greater economic development, with increasing numbers of women moving back into higher education and into progressively less gender-segregated workplaces. She also points to the strategies chosen by women lawyers to work around gender segregation – to “flow under the door like water” in defending human rights for women and children, and the strategies of many professional women who chose to continue their work from their households in order to avoid compliance with reveiling. She sees continuing challenges by different groups of women to all that reveiling means, economically, politically, socially, personally – including the rebellion of young women (and young men) who subvert and destabilize reveiling and gender segregation in their daily lives. She provides a rich account of historical gender politics in Iran, going below “the surface of the veil” to detail the contending forces that produce the “visible Iran” we so often see in the U.S. media.

Sedghi’s account offers many points of contact for fruitful comparative gender analysis. As an Africanist and veteran of the U.S. women’s liberation movement, I find some such points particularly striking:

**Women’s emancipation as a state strategy for consolidation, legitimacy and global reputation, and the state’s transformation of independent women’s movements into “state feminism.” South Africa has gained global recognition for its very progressive Constitution, and Thabo Mbeki, recently pressed to resign, lists women’s rights as one of the four major accomplishments during his presidency. Hassim (2006) describes the process of independent feminist forces pushing gender onto the ANC’s agenda, the absorption of feminists into state feminism, the appeal of women’s rights for offering state legitimacy and global reputation, the subsequent weakening of effective feminist pressure, and the ineffective carrying of laws into practice. This in no way suggests that the current South African government is comparable to the repressive government of the Shah – it is, rather, a sad recognition of how even progressive governments that include strong socialist feminists can be drawn into these patterns.

**State feminism operating against democracy. Laws passed, conferences attended, and women’s numbers in government are generally what “counts” in U.S. political science gender studies, and the same numbers are counted to measure countries’ “progress” in achieving the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals on gender. More critical gender studies of African governments argue that the various mechanisms, such as quotas, may indeed work to increase female “representation,” but may work against increasing democracy when employed by autocrats or would-be autocrats to bolster their own parties and personal power. (For example, Goetz and Hassim, 2003)

**Divisions on gender issues among women and among men, as well as between women and men, and indications of male backlash against state support for women’s rights. Recent studies in South Africa indicate that support for Jacob Zuma, the new president of the ANC, comes partly from men critical of Mbeki’s “empowering” women and children to challenge male authority in the household, men who describe Zuma as “returning us our African manhood.” Some women as well as men say they support Zuma because he represents “Africanness” as well as concern for poorer South Africans, whereas they opposed Mbeki because he supported “Western” ideas about women’s rights as well as neoliberal economic policies that benefit the rich, both white and black. Thus, despite the complaints of ANC and other feminists that the Mbeki government did not deliver sufficiently on its gender equality promises, Mbeki’s support for “capitalist imperialism” – that is, neoliberalism – is being discursively linked with his support for women’s rights, and both are being rejected by many ANC supporters. Recent gender studies of other Southern African societies, including my own work on Botswana, also indicate male backlash against government-supported women’s rights projects. Former President of Botswana Festus Mogae, who was awarded the prestigious (and very large) Mo Ibrahim prize for African Leadership in October 2008, lists women’s rights as one of his major accomplishments, but expressed sorrow that he had not been able to stop a recent serious rise in femicide, linked by Botswana feminists to young men’s anger at young women’s assertions of their rights.

**It’s the coercion, not the clothes. Much of the discourse about veiling, like that about dress in African countries, involves both state and community attempts to cover up women’s bodies. Sedghi points out that uncovering women’s bodies can also be state imposed and oppressive to some women. She describes some other Iranian women as preferring the covering of the veil or chador, but in both cases characterizes uncovering as feminist; in fact the opposition to uncovering also accurately reflects much of the African discourse about women’s dress, with mini-skirts being targeted as indicating a “decadent” Western feminist influence and feminists asserting their right to dress as they please. But almost identical forms of dress can be oppressive signs of patriarchal control in one time and context and yet be signs of feminist resistance to patriarchy in another. The Islamic Republic’s required covering of the female body includes an ensemble of loose trousers, a long, loose tunic, and a long jacket, plus a head-covering scarf. In the late 1960s many women’s liberation activists rejected mini-skirts in favor of loose pants and shirts, often tunics, clothes that, with some modifications, many of us from that generation continue to wear. In many African countries, as in the U.S., the point of contention has been about women wearing pants, whether loose or tight. Debates over women in trousers continue in many places in Africa, and many of us in the U.S. well remember being forced to wear skirts in school and university and at work, and denied entrance to restaurants and other public places when wearing pants, well into the 1960s – including wearing loose trousers just like those required in the Islamic Republic.

Read Sedghi’s sensitive analyses of veiling, unveiling and reveiling in Iran, and think not only “The Handmaid’s Tale” but “Amelia Bloomer” and “Eileen Fisher” and the multiple and fluid meanings of women’s bodies as political, social and personal sites of control and resistance.

Reviewed by Judith Van Allen
Institute for African Development
Cornell University


Goetz, Anne Marie and Shireen Hassim, eds. 2003. No Shortcuts to Power: African Women in Politics and Policy Making. London & New York: Zed Books.

Hassim, Shireen. 2006. Women’s Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

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