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Voices from behind the veil

Women in conservative Islamic societies talk about their lives, and how the West perceives them.

(Page 3 of 4)

Iranians have their own reasons to distrust Western interference. The US toppled a democratically elected Iranian government in the 1950s to put the shah in power. Iranians endured the shah's brutal secret police and while he instituted changes for women, his attempt to graft Western-style reforms onto Iranian culture wasn't a success.

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So many families felt Iranian society was immoral that some experts estimate that up to 50 percent of young women were kept from university. For these women, the 1979 Islamic revolution was a liberation. They could study, work and become a public force. Women now take 60 percent of university places.

Today, Iran's hardline Islamic clerics present a stumbling block for women as they vigorously block attempts at political and social reform. Crackdowns on women's dress often represent the clerics' resistance to larger kinds of social change. In Saudi Arabia, too, religious conservatives make women a scapegoat when fighting off change of any kind.

Despite the obstacles thrown up in the name of religion, many Iranians still see the revolution as a blessing.

"People from the outside, when they look at us, they just see the small percentage like me who have gone under the [veil]," says Negar Eskandarfar, the publisher of a Tehran literary magazine. "They don't see that huge percentage who have come out into society from inside their houses, from the back rooms, from illiteracy."

The Western preoccupation with the veil puzzles many women. "Iranian women have far more important issues than the veil," says Aflatouni. "Our laws are backward."

Courts deny Iranian women child custody after divorce, which men get more easily. Women are considered half a witness and are entitled to only half what their male siblings inherit. They need a male guardian's permission to travel abroad and must cope with the basij, the morality police who enforce proper Islamic behavior and dress.

Saudi women have their own religious police and similar legal hurdles, but in both countries women are working the gap between law and attitude.

In Iran, this is most colorfully expressed through clothing. Since the revolution, women's clothing has cycled through political as well as fashion seasons. Women test the political boundaries by shortening their coats, letting more hair show under their scarves and dusting their faces with a light bloom of makeup. After government crackdowns, coats get longer, and hair is carefully tucked away.

Saudi women have even less flexibility with dress, so challenges to the status quo are less visible. But there are middle-class women who presage change and Nadia Baeshen is one of them. She runs her own Jeddah-based consulting company, heads the women's business department at a local university and teaches at two women's colleges.

"There are certain rules you have to follow, but once you're out there, you're out there," she says. "Just don't defy the system and no one cares what you do." Seated in her office in black jeans and a funky black-and-white jacket, Ms. Baeshen projects a sharp intelligence. She dismisses travel permits as a technicality, doesn't bother with all-women banks and says her gender is a plus.

"My American friends don't believe it, but being a woman in my culture is very advantageous," she says. "In the men's bank, everyone lets me go to the front of the line. People give women some leeway and lots of respect."

She sees a silver lining in the ban on women driving. Like most women of means, she uses a driver, most of whom come from abroad to work for a few hundred dollars a month. "I do all my phone calls, set up appointments and I don't have to worry about parking," Baeshen says. "Is that so bad by American standards?"

She doesn't say how she deals with the requirement that women appoint a male proxy to conduct their business in the public arena, at government offices for instance. But some women pay a man to fill the role on paper, then take care of public business themselves.