of all the adjustments i’ve had to make since being here, nothing has been more difficult for me than having to wear the mandatory hejab (covering of the hair and body). it is not only a nuisance to have to put a scarf on my head and wear a coat over everything, but hejab has for me become a symbol of iran’s lop-sided gender roles. every time i step out of the house i am, as a matter of law and culture, at an extreme disadvantage as compared to my male counterparts.
women are treated with less regard, have lower salaries, are harrassed mercilessly, sit at the back of the bus, and are the equivalent of 50% of a man under the regime’s interpretation of islamic law. for instance, say you need two witnesses for the signing of a contract. there is only one man available to help you that day, so in place of the second individual you have to find two women. similarly, if i got in a motor vehicle accident and was in the right, my insurance company would “reward” me $1,000 but only pay me $500. what does half a person need with the full payout?
in some ways, the women of iran are extremely progressive. over half of all college graduates are female, and iranian women have long been known for their involvement in feminist movements and human rights causes. but on the other hand, every battle is a bloody one and the fruits of their efforts are at times hard to see. though many women are highly educated, their unemployment rate is double that of men (almost 23%), and as in many other societies their primary value is thought to be as a child-bearer and home-maker. some things, such as attending stadium sports events, are strictly forbidden to women and at the beach women have only a small separate area of the shore to enjoy (even then, in the water, they have to maintain full hejab).
when speaking to women i’ve met here about their views on life under such restrictions, many seem unruffled. it’s been this way for almost 30 years and most people have adjusted. some women even see advantages to the status quo: when wearing the hejab, one person told me, the man has only your ideas to deal with. i see that point, and respect anyone who makes the decision to observe hejab according to their own beliefs, but many of us who do not share those beliefs are forced to comply regardless of our will. and no matter how complacent women might seem, there are rumblings of discontent. the youth have become especially vocal and find unique ways to rebel (some hejab has become so risque it’s almost worse than wearing no hejab and recently non-married couples have begun to display affection in public).
when frustrations do bubble up, as they did outside a soccer game last week, women organize themselves and state their claims in peaceful protest. while the uprisings are often quashed with extreme force (according to some reports, dozens of women were arrested and possibly beaten the night of the game), they never cease.
at least it’s good to know there’s always someone fighting for something better than life at the back of the bus.