On 17 June the British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that circumstances were right to reopen Britain’s embassy in Iran, three years since it was closed in 2011.
The thing about circumstances is they can never be right for everyone. If they’re finally right for William Hague and President Hassan Rouhani, one can’t help but ask when the circumstances will be right for the women of Iran.
While Hague and Rouhani are “stepping forward”, Iranian women are still stuck, struggling for the freedom to make their own choices. Free from veils (if they wish), artistic suppression and imprisonment.
If this month marks a step forward for softened relations between Britain and Iran, it also highlights the continuing shuffle backwards for women like imprisoned filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi. As men in suits shake hands, Iranian women are continuing to fight for the right to make their own choices. For those who are unaware, just 10 days before William Hague announced closer ties between the UK and Iran, Mahnaz Mohammadi packed her bag for a five-year stay in Evin jailhouse, located just north of Tehran. Her “crime” is as baffling as Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s latest World Cup 2014 Twitter selfie: “collaborating” with the Persian BBC and plotting “propaganda” against the Iranian regime.
Not only are women fighting for the right to express their internal identities through art, they are also fighting for the right to express their external identities – with or without the hijab. It is worth noting that just two days prior to the diplomatic thaw, two thirds of Iran’s MPs wrote to the president demanding stronger veil enforcement for women. Yet on Facebook and Twitter, hundreds of Iranian women have been posting selfies without their veil, optimising their campaign with hashtag #MyStealthyFreedom. Their hashtag is just like their break for freedom: a contradiction in terms.
When talking about the veil, it is worth noting that throughout Iran’s long history women have lacked the choice to determine their own outwards identity, both under the Islamic governance of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2014 yet also under the western-backed, Imperial leadership of Rezā Shah pre-revolution. Male hands have always dictated female identity. Iran’s forces of westernization forcibly removed and tore chadors off women who resisted the ban on public hijabs during the Women’s Awakening in the late 1930s. A lack of freedom of choice for women didn’t begin with an Islamic Republic in 1979. In the conflict between eastern and western values, free will and self-determinism for women in Iran has always been a struggle and the veil a symbolic bargaining tool.
In an eastern-versus-western world that strives to constantly define in terms of right and wrong, Iran has constantly defied such definitions. Eastern interior lives and western exterior eyes are in a state of constant flux. What truly lies beneath the veil has become a beguiling fascination to us all and the women beneath them an emblem of an Islamic Republic we can’t quite understand.
In a recent article for the New York Times artist Haleh Anvari writes about the western fetish of staring at Iranian women. “How wonderful,” she deadpans, “we had become Iran’s Eiffel Tower or Big Ben.” Ever since the 1979 revolution, Iranian women have been viewed as monuments, not citizens. The skyline is defined, not by architecture but by a sea of black chadors. Iranian women’s identities continue to lack humanity – both through the eyes of the east and west. The western postcard is a stylised design when our vision frames black cloth against powder blue Persian tiles. As Anvari rightly identifies, “in a country where the word feminism is pejorative, there is no inkling that the values of both fundamentalism and Western consumerism are two sides of the same coin — the female body as an icon defining Iranian culture.”
Iranian women aren’t looking for western liberation, but freedom of choice. For many women, the solution isn’t to ban hijabs altogether but to give women the choice to wear or discard. As one woman on the #MyStealthyFreedom page explains: “I believe in Hijab, but hate obligatory hijab!” For Mahnaz Mohammadi, and her contemporary filmmakers, her choice is to keep making films that challenge her environment and give fellow Iranian women a voice. In her own words, “I am a woman, I am a filmmaker, two sufficient grounds to be guilty in this country.” As I type, women like Mahnaz Mohammadi are risking imprisonment and exile in order to speak as a woman. Their choices are limited.
So, as Hague and Rouhani exercise their own freedoms of choice, it’s important to remember women in Iran who lack the same freedom. Women who are campaigning for the right to remove their hijabs on Facebook’s My Stealthy Freedom page. Women like Mahnaz Mohammadi, who is now serving a five-year sentence for simply making art. Her voice has been silenced – she now needs yours.
You can speak up for Mahnaz Mohammadi by emailing your full name to the French Directors Guild who are campaigning for her immediate release: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor at Feminist Times and a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.
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