You Say You Want a Revolution (in a Loose Headscarf)

This was written by Mimi and originally published at threadbared.

Because this is a fashion plus politics blog, I want to post some very brief thoughts about the protests rocking Iran after what some observers are calling a fraudulent election, reinstalling President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against his main opposition, moderate reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi. (For news about the election and protests, The New York Times’ The Lede News Blog is frequently updated. For more analysis, check out Juan Cole.)

A glance at the Western media coverage from before and after the election reveals an overwhelming visual trope — the color photograph of a young and often beautiful Iranian woman wearing a loose, colorful headscarf, usually pinned far back from her forehead to frame a sweep of dark hair. Such an arresting image condenses a wealth of historical references, political struggles, and aesthetic judgments, because the hijab does. As Minoo Moallem argues in her book Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, both pre- and postrevolutionary discourses commemorate specific bodies –whose clothing practices play a large part— to create forms and norms of gendered citizenship, both national and transnational. What Moallem calls the civic body becomes the site of political performances in the particular contexts of modern nationalist and fundamentalist movements.

Source: Huffington Post

This particular image being disseminated throughout the Western press right now is no exception — we are meant to understand the looseness of the scarf, the amount of hair she shows, as political acts, manifesting a desire for Western-style democracy. But this shorthand is too simplistic, too easy. As Moallem argues, Islamic nationalism and fundamentalism are not premodern remnants but themselves “by-products of modernity.” As such, the image of the Iranian woman in her loose headscarf is not a straightforward arrow from Islamic backwardness to liberal progress, but a nuanced and multi-dimensional map of political discourse and struggle.

In her book, Moallem writes, “while I am interested in the production of the civic body, I want to show its instability over time in Iran.” We can see this instability in the histories of forced unveiling and forced veiling that mark particular historical and political moments in Iran. Very briefly, and no doubt simplistically, the pro-Western Reza Shah banned the veil in 1936 in a broad modernization effort, authorizing police to forcibly unveil women in the street. Women donned the veil during the lead-up to the revolution as a visible act of defiance against the Shah’s corrupt and brutal rule. After 1979, the broad coalition that had briefly united against the Shah was destroyed by the conservative Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, resulting in a fundamentalist regime that, among other things, enforced veiling for women. As such, Moallem argues, forced unveiling and forced veiling are not dissimilar disciplinary practices that regulate the feminine body as a civic body subjected to the order of the visible. Moallem observes, “My grandmother’s body –like my own later– was marked by corporeal inscriptions of citizenship. Both of us shared an incorporated traumatic memory of citizenship in the modern nation-state. She was forced to unveil; I was forced to veil. Living in different times, we were obliged by our fellow countrymen respectively to reject and adopt veiling. Our bodies were othered by civic necessity.” (Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister, 69)

This is the barest intimation of the complicated history of the civic body we are seeing in photographs from Tehran now — in which the young woman with the scarf tied loosely, the lock of hair curling against her cheek or forehead, is made to stand for both this history and also for so much more. What is often lost in translation here is that unveiling does not always signal freedom, democracy, modernity, women’s rights, whatever — even if it might gesture toward these things in this particular moment. And it’s important to situate this moment, in which we must recognize how both forced veiling and forced unveiling operated as disciplinary state edicts –often enacted violently on female bodies by male soldiers or police– at discrete political times. As such I would issue two cautions. The first, we cannot necessarily know from how a woman ties her headscarf what the shape of her politics might be, even though clothing clearly does matter politically. And second, we might commit further violence (refusing her complex personhood, for instance) in assuming that we can.

Because the hijab is so often made to stand as a visual shorthand for Islamic oppression in the West, I wanted to reference its specificity as a political performance of a particular feminine civic body in Iran (which would be different than its history in, say, Turkey, where some female Muslim university students are demanding their rights to education against the state ban on headscarves in public schools and government buildings) in order to render these photographs that much more complex, and the emerging political situation that much more nuanced, in this moment.

An Iranian woman shows the ink on her finger after voting at a polling station in Tehran on June 12, 2009. Hundreds of voters were standing outside one of the biggest polling stations in uptown Tehran, an indication of a high voter turnout in the early hours of the presidential election in Iran. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Rochelle

    I’m not sure what the point of this article was. Basically its just talking about the hijab but I don’t understand its relation to the current crisis. Seems like if the coverage focused on women in chador, there’s a problem; if it’s on loose headscarves, its a problem. Most of the pictures coming out of Iran right now are by amatuers anyway, folks taking pictures with their cell phones. The Western media is showing any picture it can get its hands on; it can’t really discriminate based on what the women are wearing. Plus I’ve seen plenty of pictures of women with magnaa’e, headscarf, chador, whatever. I get that this was taken from a fashion and political blog; but it seems like a much more interesting topic would be the focus on green and that symbolic meaning. Nobody in Iran is giving a shit about the hijab right now — why should we?

  • Mimi

    Hi, author here. This post was inspired by what seemed to me to be a preponderance of a particular image being singled out both during and after the election on Western feminist or progressive blogs — Jezebel is a good example — in which commentators would thrill to see such beautiful young women voting “for change,” and sometimes even suggest that being pretty was itself the protest. (This is actually the title of a post at Jezebel.) The equations seemed to be that familiar one of loose headscarves = democracy, chador = old order. Of course, if you are following the coverage closely, instead of casually, you would see all the other images. I know it’s not a groundbreaking post or anything, but it was directed to a broader audience and written as a brief note of caution as such.

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  • Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    The media likes to print pictures of pretty women at any opportunity.I’m sure there were just as many men at the demos but there were few pictures of them.

    In the U.K, every time there’s a really unseasonably hot day, they’ll always print a photo of girls out in summer gear. Always.


    Cross posting this from Racialicious:

    Just to get back to the headscarf and Muslim women, I’m getting sick and tired of Western MSM’s obsession with primarily putting up images of women instead of other Muslims whenever they do stories about Muslims anywhere. And they use different women for different purposes. For stories about “liberation” and “democracy” in the Muslim world, or about gender related crimes committed by Muslims they like to put up pictures of young Muslim women, whether covered or uncovered. No pictures of older women there; the message implied is “poor young Muslim woman being forced to cover, not having the freedom to live like Western women, don’t you want to “save” her?” The only time I see them using pictures of older Muslim women (read: grandmother types or even women who look like they’re married with lots of children) is when they have some random religious/cultural stories about Muslims. It’s too late to save older women after all and look how miserable they come out looking we should “save” the poor younger women from that fate/sarcasm! I hardly see them using pictures of men in this fashion (they don’t even use as many pictures of clean shaven men as they do of young Muslim women to talk about promoting hypocrisy… oh I’m sorry “democracy”). Men are not meant to be felt “sorry” for and “saved” after all.
    It’s first of all condescending and of course racist for them to believe that the West is capable of “saving” anyone (shades of colonial rhetoric there). And of course it’s sexist of them to think that women need to be saved. Like others have mentioned earlier just because the Iranian women here are wearing their scarves loosely doesn’t imply that they’re waiting for “shining white knights in armor” to come to their rescue. They have the ability to think for themselves and decide how they want their societies to function ( and I doubt many Iranians, men and women, want their countries to be destabilized by revolution, seeing all the instability and chaos plaguing Iraq and Afghanistan).

    [This comment has been edited to fit within the comment moderation policy.]

  • Rayhana

    In Iran, women have been beaten and imprisoned for years for “mal-veiling.” There are powerful and frequently published pictures and videos of Iranian women being dragged and thrashed on the street until the blood flows for the offense of showing hair, makeup, or nail polish. Iranian women have been hung from cranes for the crime of being raped without four Muslim male witnesses. There are powerful pictures of teenagers, both male and female, dangling dead as onlookers smile piously, for the fitnah of being “unchaste,” raped, or gay.

    Perhaps the publication by the U.S. media of the pictures of these women in the green revolution isn’t “condescending,” “racist,” “colonialist,” or “sexist” at all. Maybe they’re a welcome counterbalance to the stream of images of systemic violence and inhuman horror against women that have come from Iran for years. Maybe, just maybe, the hijab is only incidental, because the protestor was wearing it. And maybe no one wants to “save” the subjects — instead, those pictures might be a both a recognition and a celebration, like the famous photograph of the Tiananmen tank man, of sheer and luminous courage.

  • Phil

    BIngo. Basically if you looked at the “color coded revolutions” be they the muslim ones like in Lebanon or the Christian ones like in Ukraine, the pictures are basically the same. In fact after the Ukrainian one, i remember one person commenting that it would not have been a success if the Ukrainians didn’t have enough “pretty people”.

    meh, the media got into the business of selling their selves a long time ago. (integrity was obviously lost along the way somewhere)

  • Natalia Antonova

    Maybe it’s just me, but most of the coverage I’ve seen has featured women in fairly conservative veils.

    Iranian women are perceived to be as very fashionable though, like Lebanese women. I think that’s another reason why a pretty picture like that would be popular.

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  • celeritas

    I thought this article was very interesting. I myself noted that the wide angle shots of protests show the majority of women wearing black chadors where as the more intimate close up shots are of women in what Iranian hijab-police would call ‘bad-hijab’.

    It’s interesting also to compare Mousavi’s wife the politically active usually colourly dressed Rahnavard Shiraz

    & Mrs Ahmadinejad (she’s the one behind the pillar in the first pic and amazing in contrast to the wife of the Malay leader [not sure who they are])

  • Sahar

    Haha. I was actually writing a post taking a similar line, now might leave it. I was equally amazed at the amount of images of women in particular shown in mainstream media. Excellent observations! Moallem’s such a good read!

  • Anjanette

    I appreciated this article; from the casual reading I’ve done on the Iranian election, the argument seems right on. Was there not one woman protesting over the age of 30? Was there not one woman protesting who was wearing more than a loose headscarf, or who wasn’t pretty? Conscious or not, I think the decisions to show young, pretty women in loose headscarves was made, if not by the photographers then by those covering the news. They choose what images we see in newspapers.


    @ Rayhana

    My biggest problem with Western (particularly US) coverage of events happening in Muslim countries is that they only use specific images to catch public attention in order to further its own selfish agenda. This is no different than the time US media got the public all riled up for “liberating” women in Iraq and Afghanistan, which in reality meant the installation of puppet governments within these countries that were supposed to uphold the West’s economic interests within these regions. By misusing women’s images it grossly simplifies their struggles; one Afghan women’s activist once stated that the West shouldn’t focus on her covering but on providing women like her access to jobs and education, things it hasn’t really put much effort into implementing eight years after invading Afghanistan. In the case of Iran both Iranian men and women have various issues ranging from the personal to political to economic. To boil down all these complex issues into something like Iranian women “yearning” to be like Western women does a great disservice to their cause and brings the focus onto the West (everybody yearns to live like us!) instead of onto Iran itself.

  • Nazifa

    Yes, exactly. A “revolution” means the “backwards” and “oppressed” Muslim women are now emboldening themselves and embracing western culture. The media is constantly pushing its agenda in my opinion. And always portraying Muslim women as weak and ignorant if they don’t accept or participate in western culture.

  • Samaha

    I like how you pointed out that women have been forced to either cover or uncover and that neither is acceptable. Either way women have been objects far too long.

    But, I worry when we start analyzing the visual elements and say “this is how we are portrayed”. The purpose of photos or video is to capture the audience’s attention, improve information retention and support the purpose of what you are trying to say. Considering that Iran has had vast international coverage in regards to women’s rights, it’s not surprising that women are going to be significant elements of visuals. It’s simply going to be a much more effective visual.

    Personally, I hadn’t noticed too many images of loosely scarved “young” women. I think that your pictures here are about the youngest I’ve seen. I also don’t think that the images out there portray the Iranian woman any different than the American woman when it comes down to age and beauty. Do a google image search of woman obama supporters and woman “fill in your Iranian candidate here” supporters and look at what you have. The search for Ahmedinajad supporters actually came up with females in loose head scarves on the first page and Moussavi’s supporters with tightly covered head scarves on the first page of google image search.

    If a pattern has been noticed at a specific portal, that would be worth mentioning in the article, because otherwise their is some very interesting information here.

  • Nazifa

    Oh I completely agree with you! Especially when you mention the media’s attempts to grab the attention of non-Muslims who do think young and beautiful Muslim women need “saving.” Men are supposed to be the oppressors or perpetrators of enforcing backwardness it seems, which is what the media continues to push. I absolutely hate it, its frustrating and very one sided.

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  • r

    we need support of muslim people. Please help the people of Iran. Muslims need to support us otherwise we will be crushed and framed as pro-western. (this has nothing to do with the west or even with religion)

    PLEASE do what you can. I beg of you to speak up, my people are getting killed on the streets.

  • Mimi

    If a pattern has been noticed at a specific portal, that would be worth mentioning in the article, because otherwise their is some very interesting information here.

    Thanks, Samaha. I had Jezebel in mind when I wrote this (and a recent post there about Sarkozy’s statements about banning the burqa –and the vehement support voiced by some on the site in favor of state intervention– I think makes my argument for me), but I also saw a lot of the same photographs at Huffington Post.

  • Jonathan

    Most people’s reception of media images operates on a pretty shallow, visceral level, which is not unreasonable really considering that media images are by their nature usually ephemeral, a flash across the TV or computer screen. For the typical Western viewer of images coming from the Middle East- or wherever- her perceptions of the people in the region are shaped by these images. Iraq= suicide bombers/victims; Palestine=angry Arabs throwing rocks/suicide bomber; Afghanistan=women in burkas, men in beards being barbarians; etc. With these images in place, the Western viewer’s emotional reactions to these places are pretty well determined. While the women in burka’s may be a point of emotional contact, it’s not a particularly strong one since it is so filtered through the ‘exotic’ and foreign, to the point of being almost unrecognizable.

    Images coming out of Iran however of pretty young women protesting and well-dressed young men throwing rocks at fundie militias- these are images that the average Western viewer can connect with. Of course they’re shallow- all media images are shallow! But I would think that they are far preferable images to those associated with most other Islamic societies right now. Of course they involve self-image reflecting construction- what media (or otherwise) image doesn’t? We tend to paint our own self-portraits far more than we mean to. But it is somewhat encouraging to me anyway that for many Western viewers there is now a counterpoint to the crazy fundie Iranian image that has been current here since ’79. It may have no appreciable impact on Western audiences and no impact on Western policy vis-a-vis Iran; it may in fact be used by the war-hawks to further the case against Iran. But it may also stick in people’s minds whenever the war-mongers here demonize Iran carte blance, and might suggest to people that Iranians are people also, people we can empathize with, because we like how they look.

  • Jordan

    I think that this post misses the point, and confuses the context. The symbolism and function of the veil in Iran is different from what it is in other Islamic contexts. Women of all kinds are participating in these demonstrations, with great courage, and that includes women with chador or more conservative veiling – we need only look at Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, for confirmation that this revolt involves all kinds of women. In terms of Jezebel’s coverage, I think they actually got it right – being “pretty” CAN be a protest in Iran, because everything to do with women’s bodies is deeply politicized (not unlike the west, of course!). The thing to remember is that the veil is not a choice in Iran. Many women are happy to wear it, but some aren’t. For those women, a loose hijab is a small but important act of defiance against government coercion – it is not done incidentally. It’s an act that can have consequences – don’t forget that nail polish can get you beaten, and lipstick was at one time taken off with razor. It’s not a fashion choice but rather a political one to wear a hijab this way, so I do think we can infer some politics from it, though of course not simply that chador = pro-regime. As you say, forced veiling is just as traumatic for many women as it was in the Shah’s time when police forcibly unveiled women in public. So, a loose veil, while it may be read as a desire to “westernize” by people in the west, is NOT read that way by the women themselves – it’s an act of defiance against a brutal political regime. Simply saying that the media is picking these images because they are pretty is a heavy-handed analysis that obscures the agency of the women themselves, IMHO.

  • Rochelle

    nice post.

  • Bill Hart

    Does anyone know where we could get similar scarves and arm bands? There is some sentiment in my area for wearing them in solidarity.

  • Fatemeh

    @Bill: Uh…what is your wearing headscarves & armbands going to do for Iranians in Iran? Your support in their fight is welcome, but appropriating their clothing isn’t going to get them anywhere. This is their fight.

  • Rochelle

    That’s what solidarity means, Fatemeh. It’s not speaking for them but showing that you support them. That’s why a lot of Iranians are suggesting that Americans who want to help write personal letters to the Iranian embassy. Maybe arm bands isn’t the best choice, but there is something to be said for visual solidarity. After all, don’t you suppor the Palestinian struggle, even though it’s not your struggle?

  • Fatemeh

    @ Rochelle: Yes, but I don’t go around playing dress up in a keffiyeh. This idea of solidarity seems more like appropriation that borders on trendiness (again, the keffiyeh). My personal political opinions on American support/involvement aside, I think letter writing or rallies are a better (and more constructive) way to get involved.

  • Krista

    I think another important issue around solidarity is to find out what the community that you’re trying to be in solidarity *with* actually wants you to do. If people in Iran start asking for people around the world to wear certain things to demonstrate their support, then that’s a different thing, and creates an entirely different relationship. On the other hand, attempts at expressing solidarity through clothing when such solidarity has not been requested – even when these attempts are entirely well-intentioned – can easily result in the appropriation and commodification of a cause.