Air France propels debate over veil in Iran

Apr 26
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Iranian women demanding their civil rights
Iranian women demanding their civil rights

Monday, 25 April 2016

After protests by Air France’s female flight attendantsover having to wear the obligatory veil on Iranian soil, the company announced that it will no longer be mandatoryfor them to serve on flights to Iran. Meanwhile, this issue has reignited discussion in Iranian media and social networks.

Ever since the early days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian womenwho oppose the veil have protested it in many ways. However, this matter has yet to become one of the main demands of women's rights activists inside Iran. Indeed, it can perhaps be argued that the ideological, traditional and religious origins of the veil have made it difficult for women’s rights activists to fight it.

Nonetheless, considering that Iranian authorities have come up with a definition of mal-veiling, increased monitoring of the women's dress code and passed new legislation involving “the veil and chastity,” the veil has spawned widespread debate among Iranian women. In the eyes of some, this debate is itself a form of resistance.

Media and social networks have facilitated the publicizing of this discussion, making it global. Women in Iran who oppose the mandatory veil now send pictures of themselves without it in public to the Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom, which has been widely covered by international media. Indeed, as soon as the news of the Air France flight attendants surfaced, the campaign further called on female tourists visiting Iran to also send pictures of themselves not wearing the mandatory veil.  

However, considering the challenges and sensitivities of the current debate on the veil among Iranian women, how can the French stewardesses’ objections be analyzed? Can these types of protests aid Iranian women in their quest to gain the right to determine their own dress code? Do women’s rights activists inside Iran agree with these types of protests?

Women’s dress code has always been a sensitive and problematic issue under the Islamic Republic. In 1981, by the orders of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the veil became mandatory in government offices. The very first protests by Iranian women against the mandatory veil also go back to that time, albeit evidently unsuccessfully, since the Iranian parliament in 1984 passed legislation making the veil mandatory. Punishments for violating this law can include imprisonment, flogging or a fine, depending on the verdict issued by the judge who is dealing with the case. All women, regardless of nationality and religion, are required to observe the veil inside Iran.

Al-Monitor spoke with Minoo Mortazi Langroudi, a women’s rights activist and member of the Council of Nationalist-Religious Activists of Iran. She said the Air France stewardesses were, more than anything, targeting the laws of the Islamic Republic. “Iranian citizens, as well as foreign citizens who travel to Iran, must respect the laws of Iran even if those laws are problematic. For example, the French law that prohibits citizens from using religious symbols in public schools, which led to the veil being banned in public schools, is a very problematic law, but Muslim women are still forced to observe this law.”

Langroudi, who is a religious intellectual and has nationalist-religious views, insists that Islam does not make the veil mandatory for either Muslim or non-Muslim women. Yet she told Al-Monitor, “The Islamic Republic has laws which are derived from the Sharia. In my opinion, the Sharia is against mandatory veil. This is what I believe, but I don’t have any political power in Iran or in France. Therefore, I cannot turn my beliefs into law.”

In contrast, Zohreh Assadpour, a left-wing Iranian women’s rights activist, praised the Air France employees in an interview with Al-Monitor. She said, “Resistance against what is considered the official interpretation of the veil has always existed in Iran. This resistance has forced the establishment to show more flexibility. Naturally, the presence of foreign women without veils inside Iran threatens the self-evident nature of the veil and makes it more difficult for the establishment to force its official interpretation on Iranian women.”

Another Iranian women’s rights activist, Mahdis Pooya, told Al-Monitor that religious and social factors used to justify the mandatory veil in one society cannot be used to impose that law on individuals who are citizens of another country. She explained to Al-Monitor, “This [mandatory veil] law even goes beyond the geographical borders of Iran; a lot of Iranian tourists or eco-tourists have been prosecuted and fined because they did not observe the proper veil when they traveled abroad.” Nonetheless, Pooya said she believes that if foreign women refuse to wear headscarves and thus force Iranian authorities to make an exception for them, the relevant institutions will be faced with the question: If foreigners have a choice, then why isn’t the same right extended to Iranians?

Iranian women’s rights activist Najmeh Vahedi told Al-Monitor that she believes the Air France stewardesses’ refusal to observe the veil is not an example of lawlessness or disrespecting the culture of Iran. Instead, Vahedi said, it is “a conscious action” against a form of “women’s rights violation.” However, she added that the protest is not necessarily a positive step toward abolishing "the forced veil" for Iranian women.

Vahedi herself took part in protests against Iranian women being barred from entering stadiumsto watch volleyball. Referring to how foreign women, in contrast, are allowed to enter Iranian stadium, she told Al-Monitor, “We witnessed discrimination between Iranian and non-Iranian women when it comes to entering stadiums. This is why I think that even if foreign women are not forced to observe the veil, it will only deepen the divide between Iranian women and ‘other’ women. Once again, Iranian women will be left alone with the law, which does not support them."

Vahedi told Al-Monitor that in the decades since the official re-veiling in Iran, Iranian women have come up with "group and individual" methods of avoiding being damaged by this discrimination, “There are so many Iranian women who are upset that female tourists are forced to endure the same discriminatory laws that they have to endure inside Iran. A large number of Iranians sympathize with the foreign women who travel to Iran as part of political delegations and are forced to wear the veil. Naturally, we hope that in the near future, these restrictions imposed on foreign women traveling to Iran are removed. However, we are also hoping that amending the law in their favor will not create a new set of discriminatory laws against Iranian women.”

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