Hejab, Islamic totalitarianism and the opposition in Iran

Jaleh Ahmadi.

This article was first published in Iran Bulletin-Middle East Forum number 1,  2004. We are posting it in Middleast4Change because of its relevance in the current protest movement in Iran.

When in 1979 the new primary school books appeared in Iran, they showed “Sara” and her mother in full hejab (Islamic covering for women). It all seemed a joke. The blotting out of Goya’s Naked Maja with the censors black pen was even funnier. The History of European Civilisation, which had illustrated Goya’s painting, soon became a rarity. In those days few people believed that this farce would turn out to be the model for real life.

It was not long before what had appeared impossible became real. All those women who survived the mass executions of 1981-2 began to resemble Sara and her mother. Censors from the Ministry of Enlightenment (sic) attacked masculine fantasies, prose or figurative, with the same ferocity as the naked body of the Maja. The History of European Civilisation had not become an antique, but the absurd had become reality, the rule. Disaster was no longer a disaster.

The covering up and the censoring of women in pictures, on the cinema screen and the stage was left to the male journalist and the secular artists themselves. From then on the boundary between a “committed” [maktabi] man and a secular artist was decided through bargaining in the Ministry of Enlightenment over the amount of a woman’s hejab in pictures and in word.


But the covering of actual women was decided in an unequal battle fought in streets fenced off by hezbollahi thugs, at home, at the workplace, at school, in political organisations, outside the local grocer, in the bus queue, waiting for a taxi, and finally through whipping, imprisonment and execution. In the course of this battle the uncovered woman was finally annihilated.

But the war against women did not end there. In schools the scarf was replaced by the maqne’eh [a special scarf that is sown round the head and neck rather than draped on the head] later to be superseded by the “superior hejab” – the black chador (shapeless large piece of cloth covering all but the face]. Women were now classified into “unveiled” and “badly veiled”. The fight against the “badly-veiled” became the issue of social conflict and the excuse to impose daily terror on women. It was at this time too that pictures of women covered from head to toe in the manteau and scarf, but made-up and poking a strand of hair (kakol) from their scarf in Abe-Ali ski resort or in Safavieh Bazaar were paraded as symbols of the peace and liberalism of the men ruling Iran!

Dr Homa Daraby – photo by her sister Parvin

On April 1994, when disaster was no longer being seen as a disaster, and hejab seemed as self-evident an physical organ as any other in a woman’s body, a woman in Tajrish Square [north Tehran suburb] tore off her hejab, shouted: long live freedom, long live Iran, and set fire to herself surrounded by a ring of silent and astonished onlookers.

Iranian writers did not even register their surprise at this! A woman who had broken the silence in a city of fear did not fit between lines, even in code. A woman, whose presence for one moment had upset the uniform appearance of the city did not become the subject of a narrative, even in metaphor or by innuendo. No poem extinguished the flames that swallowed the body of Homa Darabi.

Why did Homa Darabi’s desperate cry, which was the cry of you and I, remain unheard outside the country, outside of family, friends and a handful of groups?


In the 1990’s some political refugees, openly or surreptitiously rediscovered hejab, in search of self-identity. The warmth of grandmother’s love, the smell of freshly baked bread and granny’s chador blended together in personal recollections. Investigators such as Haleh Afshar gave to grandmother’s chador a personal, and an even historic feel, giving myths surrounding such historic figures as Fatemeh-Zahra and Zeinab[1]The Prophet’s daughter and grand daughter respectively. a personal touch. They brought to life and celebrated in exile the memories of the religious mourning of the month of Muharram,[2] Shi’ite ritual mourning of the martyrdom of Mohammad’s grandson Hossein and his followers in an unequal battle with the Umayyed caliph Yazid. and offerings of halva, sholeh zard [3]food items traditionally given out as an offering during muharramand rose water, with a scholarly expertise worthy of the West.

Others fell into the trap of fighting Reza Shah[4]the father of the last shah [who copying Ataturk had forcefully banned hejab in the 1930’s]. They tore up their historic memory years after the Islamic Republic had torn down the grave of Shams-al-Moluk Mosaheb. The “modern Muslim woman”, born in the 80’s in the bloody war of Islamic fundamentalists against everyone else, fought in the 90’s shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim mini-superman. Hand in hand they crossed one border after another, climbed barricade after barricade, disarming opponents of the Islamic Republic.

Homa Darabi has not even entered any of the lists of the victims of the Islamic Republic. Because she was not just a victim. Homa rekindled a forgotten memory. The memory of a woman in a homogeneously masculine city. The memory of a women without hejab and with the death sentence on her head – both forgotten memories. She had taken the veil off the open warfare of the Islamic Republic against women, and of the crime of being a woman, which carries a maximum sentence. This did not please everyone.

Woman removing scarf in public 2018

While the importance of hejab in the Islamic Republic cannot be denied, its place in the Gordon knot of sharia’ and secular law, religion and tradition, the law and the tyranny of rights has been lost in the Islamic regime. Therefore any efforts to clarify its role is belittled, seen as negligible, politically futile and marginal. The confusion between the two different levels of political and cultural analysis, and hence analysis of the phenomenon of hejab and other crimes against women in the Islamic Republic, has held back an understanding of the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism and the Islamic Republic.

In my argument hejab will be examined not as an issue of tradition or culture, but as the issue of Islamic identity. This explanation is essential at the start in order to illuminate one of the darkest ideological corners of Islamic fundamentalists, which is also at the core of its identity and a foundation of the power to rule in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Are women human?

To Islamic fundamentalism the natural inequality of the sexes is the starting point in its definition of humanity, the state and citizenship. To understand power relations in human societies in general, and in particular the structure of political power in today’s Iran, it is necessary to distinguish the concept of male and female as an anthropological phenomenon from the same as subject of social science. That means to study gender as a historic phenomena.

Anthropological gender relations explains the different positions men and women occupy in the human value hierarchy. An example is the different position Adam and Eve occupy in the creation myths. Historic gender, however, is the basis of exploitation and social repression, and consequently of the political repression of women and the basis of all paternalistic societies throughout history. In this relation, the concept of man and woman are historic-social phenomena and are the subject of sociology. In all civilised societies to date the concepts of men and women represent the different positions the two sexes occupy in the paternalistic hierarchy under the tutelage of men.

In the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism sexual anthropology and social gender relations are fused into a single political ideology and make up a unitary whole. Gender and sexuality is the subject of definition of what it is to be human, their social role and the immediate issue of political violence. This is akin to the way German National Socialism formulated racism in a political ideology and made it the direct subject of political violence.

Based on this political ideology, the definition of a woman, and her crime, appears in the preface to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. This was no coincidence but was necessary to define and explain the governing institutions of Islamic rule. In this preamble women are defined as a “object and tool” “in the service of consumerism and all-encompassing exploitation” the polar opposite of the “the leader of the ever-watchful conscience of the nation”. The Islamic government is given the task of transforming her into a mother of committed [maktabi- one who follows Islam totally] human beings. In the Islamic Republic a woman, as a force of reproduction which has been seized and reclaimed, is transformed into one of the institutions of the Islamic government, appropriately located in the Constitution between the economic and maktabi military institutions.

In the ideology of Islamist fundamentalism the topic of women is not merely ideological but is the foundation on which the definition of Muslim men, Islamic community and the nature of the enemy rests. The confrontation of the insider and the outsider is determined, and becomes manifest, in the battle for the possession of women. The woman is excluded from the image of a collective human and is placed at the opposite pole of man-human. This image of a deformed human becomes once again complete in the image of a believing man. Rationality becomes subordinate to belief.

The Muslim man is the epitome of true belief and the representative of the power of male sex in safeguarding the harmony of creation. Its most complete form is exemplified in the Leader, the great superman, Khomeini. Women on their own are the subject of sex, sexuality and lust, and in consequence, the subject of ownership possession and conquest, on the one hand, and of sin, control, crime, and punishment on the other. The body of a woman, as home for the devil, becomes the place and the subject of the holy jihad.

Historically defined humanness

In the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism the relations of ownership and domination of women is the main subject of belief, and power of the male sex and the definition of the “male-human”. Injury to these relations is the devil’s work and conspiracy by the enemy. Women are the means of its execution. The negation of woman is the affirmation of the Muslim man. The corrupted world is defined by women and the ideal Islamic society is portrayed in the negation of this world through the negation of women as a subject. On the other hand the human status of men is a given and self-evident product of creation, and its loss is possible, though conditional.

In this ideology, the humanness of women, even contrary to the portrayal of humans in the Quran, is openly questioned. The humanness of women is an acquired thing conditional to obedience. Therefore the humanness of women is restricted to an historic period. According to the founder of this ideology Khomeini, as he wrote in his large tome Safiyehe Nur, women were reduced to a level below animals in jahelieh [pre-Islamic] times. Women became human through the inception of Islam. Once Islam declined after the Islamic government of Mohammad, women lost their human identity and once again became a tool and ally of the enemy. A woman not under control, that is a woman in her natural and real being, is potentially, and in her very essence an enemy object, and for this reason is the subject for the definition of the enemy. In its Western variety the women is the continuation of the pre-Islamic woman, the woman of jahelieh, and is placed in a position inferior to animals. She is the naked face of the foreign enemy.

Let me quote an example of this view of women as a tool of foreign enemy from the official journal of the Islamic Republic – Zane Ruz – reporting a seminar of Women From the Viewpoint of Islam in 1982:

“Women have always played a fundamental role in colonialism and exploitation, especially in cultural exploitation. The obvious example is Spain. The most important role in the conquest of Spain from the Muslims was played by Christian women. Or the [Quranic] story of Bala’m Bal’ur who by flinging the women of that city onto the troops of Moses caused on one account 6,000 and on another 4,000 to be contaminated, and what calamities did not befall them. In general wherever you find the footprint of corruption and colonialism women have been present ”.

 In Islamic countries women are the fifth column of the foreign enemy.

In the bloody battle where Islamic fundamentalists realised their identity, the enemy was internal. The enemy incarnate was not western man or women. It was the Iranian woman, now attacked as the tool of the outside enemy. The changing of women, in other words the war against their physical presence and other manifestations of her presence, became the main substance of the anti-imperialist struggle and the realisation of the Islamic revolution. Resistance against this amounted to political betrayal.

The total separation of male and female, the removal of women from the pictorial representation of humanity, the conquest of women as the embodiment and manifestation of the enemy, the victory over the feminine and her control, attempts to turn her into the slave of the Islamic government, and ultimately her exhibition, whether present or not, in the cliché of the Muslim woman was the main subject-matter of the ideology and policy of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran. Hejab is the expression and means of its implementation.

Among the numerous examples of the efforts to criminalize the hejab can be seen in the official newspaper “Jomhuri Islami” on International Women’s Day in 1984:

“In underdeveloped countries … women act and serve as the unwitting ally of the powers to destroy our culture… A woman is the best agent in aiding imperialism to destroy our culture. The role of women is even more sensitive in Islamic countries. In these societies the woman possesses a shield that protects her honour, chastity and humanity against the conspiracies that are plotted against these. Hejab is this shield. Lack of hejab was a blow against chastity and personality of women. Women were used to distort the Islamic culture of society and to destroy the faith of the people and to take society towards corruption, decline and collapse…. It is here [in the realisation of hejab] that the we realise the glory and depth of the Islamic revolution in Iran.”

To doubt the humanity of women, is to efface women as a subject or person in ones ideology. To define women as an unwitting agent is her effacement as a political person, victimising her, and making her disappear as an individual with legal rights. To ascribe women’s lack of free will and crime to her nature is to remove women as a moral agent.

The struggle against women and femininity in order to save masculinity and to revive male power is the direct and central theme of political power, social codification and Islamic law. Through these the institutions of power in the Islamic Republic took form. Hejab is the subject, the shape and the means of realising the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism in the Islamic government.

Hejab and the cliché of the Muslim women

The transformed woman in the cliché of the Islamic woman is defined, before all else by the hejab. This is more than mere religiosity. Women from other faiths, if they accede to hejab, become human. The wife of a man, whether heathen or fervent Islamic believer, will become a Muslim if she wears Islamic covering.

The philosophy of hejab is the negation of women as a subject, alongside the negation of the individual on the whole. Control rather than choice and free will becomes a principle. The Islamised nation is shaped by the hejab and replaces the dismissed nation. The Western foreigner, just as the Muslim Arab, can sit on the negotiating table only once she accepts the national border of hejab.

The woman in the eyes of Islamic fundamentalist, is not the woman of the Qur’an and the obedient slave to husband and God. Nor is she the ideal women of men in the end of the 20th century. She is a characterless cliché with the right to vote against freedom and free will. She is a faceless, alienated being which has become the yardstick for evaluating things. The modern Muslim woman is the outcome of a bloody war in the trial of power by the system of terror and destruction of humans and the product of the fundamentalist’s programme to Islamise society.

In the view of Islamic fundamentalism the hejab is not a sign of the belief for the Muslim man, nor the border between the believer and the non-believer, nor a protector of morals, nor a separation between the Muslim umma and the foreigner. Hejab is the expression of the duality of sexuality in its pure form.  The impassable border between male and female, and the fortification of the absolute power of a masculinity with pretensions to globalised application.

Translated by Mehdi Kia

This is the first part of an article in Farsi that first appeared in Arash no 84 on June 2003. Jaleh Ahmadi then goes on to exemplify her case with examples from the Islamic Republic of Iran.


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