Writer and filmmaker Ghazaleh Golbakhsh has just released her book The Girl from Revolution Road, a collection of personal essays about growing up in Aotearoa as an Iranian immigrant. In this extract, she reflects on women wearing the hijab.
The first time I returned to Iran, I was thirteen years old and in my first year of high school. It took three planes and almost two days to reach Iran from New Zealand. My whole family went and although I enjoyed meeting my cousins, who I had not seen for over a decade, I hated the trip.
I hated that we had to continually visit people I had never heard of. I hated that I couldn’t understand the language as well as my cousins. I hated that we didn’t do anything touristy. Most of all I hated wearing a hijab.
The hijab is one example of the veil which has become such a prominent motif of the Middle East; it requires some historical context. The veil has been a part of women’s dress in both Western and Eastern cultures for millennia, from Egyptian goddesses to the Christian veiled Mary in Renaissance paintings.
In Ancient Persia, the veil was in use throughout the Sassanid and Byzantine empires as a fashion statement until it became attire for religious women after the Arab conquests in the seventh century. Under Reza Shah Western dress (or non-Islamic attire) became one of his most controversial acts when he outlawed the chador (a long fabric that covers everything but the face) in 1936.
Women, including those who were non-religious, took to veiling as a form of political protest against his son, Reza Shah Pahlavi in the 1960s and 1970s; when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he initiated the idea of mandatory veiling as a ‘recommendation’ in 1980 until it became law in 1983. By 1986 the punishment for not veiling included public lashings and imprisonment, a punishment which is still used today.
What is important to note is that, contrary to belief, neither forced unveiling or veiling improved the status of women in society. Instead, it merely highlighted the vast differences between them.
Alongside the hijab, women and men must also cover their arms and legs. Often women would find fashionable coats and leggings daring to show some ankle. Despite having some of the harshest and strictest media in the world, including banning most websites and social media, Iranians are allowed (legal) access to Instagram.
There are hundreds if not thousands of accounts dedicated to showing off fashionistas around Iran, each delicately showing off their designer labels underneath their jackets and their expensive highlights under their hijabs.
Ghazaleh in Iran in 2011. Photo / Supplied
After a few weeks of wearing something so uniform it made me realise why women are so keen to individualise their appearance. It started to make sense why women experimented with makeup and hair and even facial piercings. To the horror of my mum I got a nose piercing as a way to differentiate myself.
This incessant need to express myself was so strong that it made me realise how easily I had taken it for granted in Aotearoa. Even when we decide to wear our sweatpants, Birks and two-week-old T-shirt, we are making a statement (albeit a lazy one).
However, Iran is also a massive country of over 80 million inhabitants so in contrast to the colourful glitz of the fashion crowd, there are also women clad in just simple black chadors showing only their paint-free faces and also women who refuse to partake in either look, and do their own thing.
The veiled woman has become a symbol of Iran. The Pahlavi monarchy believed her to be a symbol of tradition and an antithesis to modernisation. Under the Islamic Republic she is the ideal to which all women must adhere to: chaste, pious and an ally to the regime. In Western media, she is both oppressed and threatening.
Women’s bodies and how they choose to express themselves seem forever doomed to be continually in a tug of war by the patriarchy and the women who challenge it.
This is an extract from new book The Girl from Revolution Road by Ghazaleh Golbakhsh, published by Allen & Unwin NZ, $37. Purchase it here from the Women's Bookstore.