Iran reverses women's 'liberation' as Muslim hard-line pressures grow

'It's the thin edge of the wedge," said a young Iranian translator in Tehran, brushing her hair to a shawl. "First they will force the women government employees into the hejjab, and then gradually they will make the rest of us do the same."

She was talking about the Iranian government's efforts to compel women government employees to weat the hejjab (Islamic veil), or at least a head scarf , when at work. Women attempting to protest the move in rallies and street demonstrations and by wearing black as a sign of mourning for their "lost rights" have been more or less silenced.

Some have lost their jobs. Others have been arrested for demonstrating illegally. The rest have gone to work with head scarves dutifully covering their hair.

The outcome is yet another indication of today's trend toward religious fundamentalism in Iran. The campaign by Westernized and largely middle-class Iranian women to retain and even expand their "liberated" status within the context of Ayatollah Khomeihi's Islamic revolution appears to be fizzling out.

The reasons are various.

In the eyes of Muslim devotees, a lack of "proper" dress is genuinely felt to be immodest. Probably the great majority of peasant of working-class Iranian women would concur with such a verdict.

At the same time, Western dress, like most other aspects of Western culture, has become associated with the much vilified regime of the two former shahs. Reza Shah, for instance, father of the monarch ousted last year, imposed a "liberation from the evil" half a century ago, often using brutal methods.

He ordered his police to go out into the streets and rip the veils, notably the chadors (long usually black, head-to-foot shawls leaving only eyes and part of the face uncovered), off any women wearing them. Hundreds of thousands of women thus "liberated" against their will and that of their families and husbands decided to stay what way if only to avoid a second insult in the streets.

The chador later became a symbol of the Khomeini-inspired revolution. Says Sadeq Khalkhali, the controversial Islamic judge:

"It is these Muslim women wearing the chador who helped to bring the revolution to victory. It is they who faced the bullets and tanks of the criminal Shah's forces and defeated them."

The message is clear. The middle-class Iranian women now so bitterly protesting the reimposition of the hejjab were not the ones who fought the revolution. They had better fall into line.

"I swear I was there too," said one middleclass Iranian woman to The Christian Science Monitor," out there among those hundreds of thousands of other people. Maybe not during the earlier demonstrations, but later when the numbers swelled I used to take my two children with me and join the demonstrations."

The woman, Zohreh (her name withheld on request), wore no head scarf as she spoke. She was a good example of a middle-class Iranian woman who has never worn any kind of veil since her childhood, whose husband does not want her to wear the hejjab, and who dresses in a typically Western style.

Her dress was modest by Western standards, but the lack of a head scarf made it "un-Islamic." Zohreh and other middle-class women like her are simply following in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers, who were "liberated" initially by Reza Shah.

Under the Khomeini regime's new dress code, all female fovernment office workers have been told to wear a hejjab or veil covering each women's head, neck , and shoulders.

Each must also wear long-sleeved dresses covering her arms up to the wrist. This, the officials explained, will do for the time being, until the President's office and the Revolutionary Council draw up a uniform dress for all women government employees. Such a garment is expected to be the same in design, but not necessarily in color, for all government offices and institutions.

"It could have been worse," said one young government employee. "Thank God they didn't ask us to wear the chador."

Some of the less fundamentalist Iranian clergymen, such as the late Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, said shortly after the new regime came into existence that calling for the hejjab did not necessarily mean that women would have to wear the chador.

President Bani-Sadr says the hejjab helps to maintain the "respect and exalted position of women." This view is echoed by millions of Iranian women, such as Ayatollah Taleghani's daughter, Azam, now a member of the Iranian parliament.

Azam Taleghani believes in veiling herself in the strictest possible manner. She wears a flowing black chador. Yet she still manages to lead a very active political life, addressing public rallies, addressing numerous indoor meetings, and granting interviews to radio, television, and newspaper reporters -- many of them men.

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