Behind The Scarves, Iran's Second Sex Seethes

At Ali's pizza parlor, a popular teen hangout, girls furtively giggle and make eyes at groups of boys. An announcer bellows that someone's pepperoni pizza is ready. Still, this is Tehran. Fearful of harassment by the Islamic police--who enforce dress-code and behavior laws--the announcer also urges the girls to "mind your hijab"--a reference to the scarf and long coat all Iranian women must wear. Quickly, the scarves are readjusted, and loose locks of hair disappear.

Hijab is of endless fascination to Westerners. "What was it like being covered up all the time?" I was asked when I returned. I said I found hijab a nuisance, as do most Iranian women. It's particularly uncomfortable during the hot summer months. But overall, most Iranian women have learned to live with it; the young even manage to make it look fashionable. For many, hijab is the least of their problems.

It is in other aspects of their lives that Iranian women are seeking dramatic change. The language they use sounds almost reminiscent of the early days of the feminist movement in the U.S. in the 1970s. No one is about to burn a bra, but Iranian women are tired of being treated inequitably, and they're saying so.

TURNING POINT. One of the ways they're making their concerns known is through sports, which has become an unlikely political vehicle for Iranian women. Last November, when the Iranian soccer team won a berth in the World Cup, Tehran went wild. Street parties erupted throughout the city. "I took off my scarf and danced in the street," says Banafshe, a student at Tehran University. Hundreds of women did the same. Others broke into a stadium--women are not allowed to attend sporting events--to participate in the welcome-home ceremony for the soccer team. Overwhelmed, the city's Islamic police did nothing.

Women's activist and publisher Shahla Lahiji calls this extraordinary event the "football revolution." Many Iranian women hope it won't stop there.

Iran isn't Saudi Arabia--where women may not drive or vote--but Iranian women are discriminated against in employment, marriage, and the courts. They can't leave the country without their husbands' permission or be seen in public with a man who is not a family member. They can't even ride bicycles because it's considered too sexually provocative.

So these days, women are looking hopefully to the country's new President, Mohammed Khatami, who is considered a moderate. Khatami promises more rights for women, including more employment opportunities and better treatment under the law. While critics say he has not yet delivered major changes, women are encouraged by his reformist views. "They have more stride in their walking," says Lahiji. "The head is up now."

During the time of the Shah, women were accorded many rights, including, in 1962, the right to vote. But after the Islamic revolution in 1979, these freedoms disappeared. Women were forced to cover themselves, and many had to leave their jobs. It became difficult to live a comfortable life outside the home.

JUDGES, TOO. Now, their status is rising more quickly than at any other time since 1979. Khatami has named a woman as one of his vice-presidents--a first. Iran now has women judges; four were recently appointed to family court. And women account for 45% of all university students. "The opportunities for women are improving. Women can become engineers or accountants or doctors," says Vahide Das Jerdi, a gynecologist and one of 13 women who belong to the 270-member parliament.

Working has clearly helped Iranian women gain a sense of independence. In recent years, Iran's faltering economy forced many women into the workforce to help support their families. But what started out as economic necessity turned into enjoyment. Women no longer have to spend most of their time cloistered in their houses. "I love interacting with people and dealing with customers," says Shiva, a 31-year-old mother of one and a haircutter at a Tehran beauty salon. "I would never give up my job."

For some women, an increased sense of independence puts them at odds with Iranian men. Afasanah, a 35-year-old bride-to-be who works at a government ministry, says she had a hard time finding a man who would let her continue to work. "Until now, I found it easier to be independent. And most men don't like that," she says. Even more traditional Iranian women agree it's hard to find a modern husband. "It's very common now for women in their 30s to be single and working," says 32-year-old Farideh, an office worker, as she leaves the shrine of an Islamic saint in northern Tehran. Being single doesn't seem to dismay her. "First my job, then marriage," she says.

Getting a good job isn't easy, however. Opportunities for women remain limited. Many work at traditional women's jobs: beauty salons, clothing stores, teaching, and nursing. While nearly a third of government jobs are now occupied by women, they are the lower-paying ones. Behouri, a 21-year-old nutrition major at Tehran University, says that while she'll find a job when she graduates, she won't be treated the same as a male employee. "There is no equality between men and women," she laments.


VIGILANTES. There's rising concern, too, about a conservative backlash either stunting or even reversing the few strides women have made. While women say they are harassed less now by Islamic police, they are increasingly bothered by vigilante groups prowling the streets looking for women wearing makeup or walking with a man who is not a relative. Most women say these instances have not yet turned violent, but they do find them threatening and worry that they may become more severe.

Still, women are daring to break the myriad laws that govern their behavior. At a Tehran park, medical student Sahar, wearing a black scarf, short blue raincoat, jeans, and sneakers, blatantly flouts the law by playing badminton with a man she doesn't know. "I do whatever sports I like, even with boys," she says defiantly. She even manages to ride a bike sometimes.

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