Academic journal article Liminalities

The Personal, the Political, and the Public: Performing Hijab in Iran

Academic journal article Liminalities

The Personal, the Political, and the Public: Performing Hijab in Iran

Article excerpt

Crossing into the Field and Over the Border

Oxidizing bronze and copper deposits scar the rocky mountains of Tehran; the thick lines of purple and green hold a breathtaking, soothing majesty. When I look up at the jutting colors, the crowded and congested streets of the metropolis fade away, and a sweeping sense of being connected to the earth takes place. I sense life will continue long after politics, governments and the concrete walls of institutions crumble from existence.

As inspiring and awe-inducing Tehran's geography can be-it still carries consequences. The very height of the mountains ruthlessly trap in pollution and hold it over the valley that comprises much of the city. Thick blankets of smog stick to the human body and taint the otherwise transparent sweat on one's forehead a murky shade of gray. Breathing in downtown Tehran does not feel healthy to me. It is hard to believe it is barely five o'clock in the morning. The day is already smoldering, hot and gooey.

Only ninety minutes had passed since I sat on a stuffy airplane, preparing to step out onto the fiery soil of Tehran. I was looking forward to meeting up with Maryam, Mitra, and Fatima-three women both related to one another and good friends. They are the reason for this particular trip. They were going to allow me into their homes, and share their narratives on the legal mandate and religious practice of hijab and the act of veiling and covering associated with it.

As my plane crossed into Iran's airspace, the flight attendant's voice crackled over the speakers. With encouragement and prescription, she thanked the women onboard for showing "courtesy to Islam." This statement was her way of asking us to begin complying with the Iranian governments' mandate that all women practice hijab.

Generically referred to as veiling or covering, hijab is a much more exhaustive and complicated Arabic word. Hijab appears in five verses of the Qur'an (Qur'an 7:46; Qur'an 19:16-17; Qur'an 33:53; Qur'an 41:5; Qur'an 42:51). There are several translations. The most popular include barrier, seclusion, curtain or divider. Although different Islamic sects take individualized reads on the Qur'an, the spirit of hijab embraces being decent and modest. The verses where hijab appear are not those that address the clothing of women in Islam.

The concept of women's clothing distinctly appears in two other sections of the Qur'an. The Arabic word khimar (Qur'an 24:31) refers to women's headscarves and the word jilbab (Qur'an 33:59) to women's outer garments and clothing. It is when the scriptures mentioning hijab and the ones discussing women's clothing are taken in combination that the idea of veiling comes into action as a practice of the faith. The Islamic practice of covering derives its power from the fusion of the Qur'an's call to being decent and modest read alongside the verses mentioning khimar and jilbab.

Iran's current theocratic government requires women practice hijab. The legal obligation is women cover most parts of their bodies, the only exceptions being that of the face and hands. This compulsory practice was placed into action in 1979 after the Ayatollah Khomeini took rulership. During the revolution that positioned Khomeini into power, Maryam, Mitra, and Fatima were much younger than when they spoke to me. The change was particularly difficult for Maryam and Fatima. Maryam was into her thirties, and Fatima was a grandmother for the first time. Mitra did not share the same experience of having to adjust. She was only six years old at the time. While Maryam and Fatima had lived almost half their lives without forced veiling, Mitra was too young for it to matter.

The political climate surrounding hijab was nearly the opposite in the time before the Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran's previous ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, denounced the act. The Shah promoted the idea of taking on a more modernized social system. He believed the practice of wearing the veil held Iran back from economic and social global advancement (Hay 2007). …

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