Tavakoli’s Triumph: Scores in Chadors

Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is not to side with either the government or the opposition of Iran, but to analyze the use of gender in a recent campaign.

Being a woman is considered so shameful that if you are an outspoken male opposition supporter in Iran, the press will release a picture of you wearing a headscarf and chador to humiliate you.

This is exactly what happened to Majid Tavakoli, a prominent student leader in Iran (image below). Tavakoli was arrested in last week’s student-led protests after he gave a speech urging students to reject “tyranny,” a call greeted by chants of “death to the dictator.”

The image of Tavakoli released to the press. Image via Fars News Agency.

The image of Tavakoli released to the press. Image via Fars News Agency.

Speculations have been going back and forth between pro-government and opposition media: no one knows if Tavakoli was arrested while disguised as a woman, forced to wear the clothing after being arrested, or if the photo itself was simply digitally altered. But the overreaching message is that women’s clothing–and by extension, women–was used to disgrace Tavakoli.

The contempt for women displayed in the shaming campaign is shocking. That women would be shown vindictiveness so publicly, in a country that is supposedly amongst the more progressive Islamic governments, is ironic – but steps taken by Iranian bloggers and other supporters who are participating in the solidarity campaign do provide respite from the bitter reality.

Even if Tavakoli did disguise himself as a woman, the fact that it is viewed as a shameful act and used to humiliate him is telling of the gender strata that exist within Iranian society. By depicting Tavakoli wearing women’s clothing, the media campaign sought to make him less of a man. Since men and women are thought to be opposites and have opposite traits (i.e., men are strong and hard, women are weak and soft), feminizing Tavakoi with a chador is intended to denigrate his masculinity. The intention was to underscore his value as a student leader and contribute to the demobilization of the opposition movement. Instead, a rather interesting development has unfolded.

Iranian men are showing their solidarity with Tavakoli by wearing headscarves and chadors. Photos of covered men are popping up on Facebook and Twitter and blogs. Not only are they showing their support for Tavakoli, but also for women, who, by inference, are on the bitter end of this campaign as the “lesser sex”.

Pulled from the We are Majid Tavakoli Facebook group.

Pulled from the We are Majid Tavakoli Facebook group.

The bold act by these men who have submitted their hijab photos may be reflective of a growing shift in perspectives of women amongst ordinary Iranians. This is a very positive sign that there are men out there who do not view women as shameful or less valuable human beings, and are willing to take on the very symbol of femininity (the hijab or chador) in solidarity with them. Although their primary reason for doing so is to support Tavakoli, the connotations of gender solidarity are too strong to ignore. Many of the male supporters themselves say that they stand with Tavakoli and with Iranian women.” Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at New York’s Columbia University, told CNN that he is

Proud to wear my late mother’s rusari, the very rusari that was forced on my wife in Iran, the very rusari for which my sisters are humiliated if they choose to wear it in Europe, and the very rusari that the backward banality that now rules Iran thinks will humiliate Majid Tavakoli if it is put on him — He is dearer and nobler to us today than he ever was.

The fundamental question underlying this story is an age-old one: why are women viewed as lesser beings in traditional Islamic cultures (note: not in Islam)? This story reflects the macrocosm of the majority of Muslim societies, whereby women are marginalized and given a lower status than men in the name of “Islam”. Too often, in both the Muslim and non-Muslim world, women are the scapegoats and symbols for many things unclean and unwanted–from adultery to minaret bans–and this story is yet another sorry example of the depreciation and denigration of Muslim women.

  • roja

    I think your photo from fars news might not be related. It seems like they are government supporters (due to the use of the flag) and she seems to be a woman, not a man. can you please check again?

  • Eman Hashim

    This was so weird from whoever thought of the campaign.
    I am with you in this Question Safiyyah, but I have to say I so much admire the Iranian reaction, very mature indeed!
    I can’t help but asking myself if anyone here at my country would react the same if the same happened here!

  • Critical Analysis

    “No one knows if Tavakoli was arrested while disguised as a woman, forced to wear the clothing after being arrested, or if the photo itself was simply digitally altered.”

    It’s not that no one knows… the practices of the Iranian regime have been relatively consistent and don’t deviate much. It’s almost certain that he was forced to put it on (do you think he could get away wearing a chador with that face? seriously?)

    Also just to point out the image you’ve posted is about 99.95% likely from the Ahmadinejad *side*… given that “Fars news agency” http://english.farsnews.com/ has very strong ties to the Iranian government. If this is from any of the protest… note they are using the Iranian flag and not anything green… I would be very very surprised to be proven otherwise.

    The “chador” has become synanomous with a conservatism in Iran, and specific groups who’ve monopolized it… and hence it’s become rather stigmatized by the more liberal segments of society. Also women are viewed as second hand citizens in *any* PATRIARCHY. And the majority of Muslim countries have been patriarchies for a couple of thousand years now.

  • http://folio.me.uk Tim

    Being a woman is considered so shameful that if you are an outspoken male opposition supporter in Iran, the press will release a picture of you wearing a headscarf and chador to humiliate you.

    More likely it is a man dressing as a woman that is considered shameful: a point of view not limited to Iran.

    Did you not read the articles about renegade MI5 officer, David Shayler, earlier in the year? He has been thoroughly discredited now we know he often dresses as his alter-ego Dolores.

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist

    that is so awesome.

  • http://www.blogistan.co.uk/blog/ Yusuf Smith

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    A very inspired campaign. Of course, dressing up in clothing associated with the opposite sex is haraam normally, but clearly there is a necessity here.

    Actually, the head-coverings men wear in some Arab countries are often wrapped in much the same way as a woman’s headcovering and can be called a khimaar. I have seen it in a photo myself – a man with a checked scarf tied round the back of his head and under his chin, with the two black rings on top.

  • Fatemeh

    @ Roja: I pulled the picture from the “We are Majid Tavakoli” Facebook photos, so I’m not sure whether it’s connected or not. There are plenty others that I can replace it with–thanks!

    @ Tim: Your MI5 officer isn’t relevant to the conversation. How does dressing as a woman make him a less effective officer?

  • http://folio.me.uk Tim

    David Shayler was the officer who claimed that MI6 funded Islamist fighters to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi and that MI5 failed to keep track of an IRA bombing cell.

    He was a thorn in the side of the British government and our security services for several years. He spent time in exile and served two prison sentences for his breach of the Official Secrets’ Act.

    The point I was making was that after years being taken seriously for his claims, the revelation that he dresses as a woman has suddenly discredited him in the eyes of society at large.

    …which I believe is relevant to the conversation. By presenting him as a cross-dresser, the attempt is made to discredit Tavakoli.

    Is this story really about contempt for women and women’s clothing? Or is it rather about utilising a taboo to quash one’s opponents?

  • Safiyyah

    @ Tim:
    cross dressing is often used as a political tactic, and a very useful one too – having little to do with gender identity.

    Also, “a man dressing as a woman that is considered shameful: a point of view not limited to Iran.” yes, but that’s because the woman is viewed as shameful in the first place.

  • Tim

    My point was lost. Never mind.

  • http://sophister.wordpress.com sophsiter

    So if the authorities did not force him to wear the veil, and he was already wearing it, should they have removed the veil just because some might assume they meant this as an affront to women? Aren’t you presupposing that dressing like a woman is humiliating in general to men and thus that being a woman is shameful? Have the Iranian authorities purposefully dressed opposition males as women in the past (those who were not already dressed like women)?

  • Sobia

    I understood Tim as pointing out that a man dressing like a woman is considered shame worthy in a lot of contexts, not just Iran. And I agree with him. Even here in North America for a man to behave like a woman is considered something of shame or to avoid, if one is a straight male, but for a woman to behave like a man is a step up, or something to be aspired to. As he pointed out the officer lost his credibility once it was found that he was dressing like a woman. That says something about the way women are viewed in a British context as well.

  • farah

    <3 this campaign.


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