Women in Iran

The Daughters of Khomeini's Silent Revolution

Women in Iran do not enjoy the same freedoms as men in public. Yet resistance is stirring under the veil. Young women are well educated, confident, and are fighting for their place in a patriarchal society. Claudia Hennen reports

Newsha Tavakolian (photo: ONUK)
"Iranian women are not victims and they don't want to be seen that way. They're very strong and they work hard at changing their situation," says photographer Newsha Tavakolian

​​"Why does Ahmadinejad part his hair in the middle? Because he wants to keep the female and the male lice apart!" Iranian women pass around jokes like this by text message, according to the Franco-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui (34), who reports on the Middle East for the French media. She spent eight years watching Teheran's women and noted down her findings in the book Les Pintades à Téhéran, which could be loosely translated as "The Cackling Hens in Teheran".

Women in Iran do not enjoy the same freedoms as men in public, but resistance is stirring under the veil. In the thirty years since the Iranian revolution, women have gradually conquered certain niches.

The daughters of Khomeini – young women in their early thirties – are well educated, confident and proud. And they are fighting for their place in a patriarchal society, even if there is sometimes a high price to pay.

Humour as a weapon

Humour is a widely used weapon, says Delphine Minoui. The power of these jokes, she says, is down to the fact that they are passed on anonymously.

A feminist or a female lawyer who revealed her identity would run the risk of being arrested. "A joke, on the other hand, is like a wave that washes over the whole country," she explains with a smile, "no one can arrest it."

Delphine Minoui (photo: ONUK)
"In internet blogs, Iranian women bare their souls in the truest sense," says Delphine Minoui, whose observations of women's everyday lives in Iran over the course of eight years have now been published in a book

​​A year ago, Iran's only feminist women's magazine, Zanan, was banned. But the resistance finds new channels, for example internet blogs or mobile phone text messages, where men's position of power is called into question:

"In internet blogs, Iranian women bare their souls in the truest sense," says Delphine Minoui. "They talk about their family problems, their role in society, their sexual problems … there are even blogs written by lesbians in Iran. The virtual world has become a real space for discussion. Internet chat is also very popular. First of all, it's a network that allows young people to get to know each other, but it can turn political very quickly too."

Silent revolution

The Internet is of course censored in Iran; one sure sign is when the words "access denied" appear on a website. But new websites are generated as fast as the older ones are blocked, according to Minoui.

She has her own experience of censorship – her work permit was cancelled two years ago and she has been living in Beirut ever since, only making temporary trips to Iran. The boundaries, she says, have to be drawn up again and again, inch by inch.

Cover of Delphine Minoui's book about women in Iran (&copy Éditions Jacob-Duvernet)
Humour as a weapon: Delphine Minoui's book Les Pintades à Téhéran

​​"Take lipstick as an example," says the journalist. Many Iranian women use bright red lipstick and deliberately run the risk of being reprimanded by the morality police. They are made to rub their makeup off with cotton wool in public. But as soon as they turn the next corner, they take out their lipstick and reapply it.

Some women have even had permanent lipstick applied as a tattoo: Minoui calls this a "silent revolution", as these protests aren't hitting the headlines in international newspapers, but she is absolutely convinced: "These women are fighting for their cause from morning to night."

Iranian women's lives today are sited somewhere between the traditional and the modern. The Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian (27) documents this dual identity in her work.

Her pictures show young women in traditional clothing at religious festivals, or sitting laughing and smoking in cafés, their hijabs almost down to their shoulders. Alongside them hang shots of mothers grieving beside photos of their sons, celebrated as martyrs.

Tavakolian's favourite photo depicts two young Iranian women practicing karate – now one of the country's most popular sports for women. This is no coincidence, she believes: "Iranian women are not victims and they don't want to be seen that way. They're very strong and they work hard at changing their situation!"

While she is aware that women in Iran don't have as many rights as in other countries, she is sure of one thing: "We're in a process of change, and we will catch up!"

Progress in Iran

One example she gives for this progress is the fact that women have been granted custody of children in divorce cases since 2004. Before that, fathers were always given custody. A growing number of companies are also now employing women, she says, as they are very hardworking and well educated.

Veiled women doing Karate (photo: Newsha Tavakolian)
Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian documents the dual identity of women's lives in Iran's cities

​​When it comes to her own work, Tavakolian has got used to censorship. There is no point in her photographing executions, prostitution or drug use. But her photos have still been published in high-profile magazines such as Time and National Geographic.

She censors her work herself, she says; she has to if she wants to work and survive in Iran. "If a magazine asks me to take photos of young Iranians at parties, unmarried people dancing and having fun, I just don't do it. It would only get me into trouble. I don't want to lose my work permit for one photo, no matter how important it's supposed to be."

Claudia Hennen

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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