Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
December 29, 2011

Ahmadinejad’s Ready-to-Wear: Government Approved to Make Women Look Islamic and Beautiful

When reflecting on the fashion dictates of her time, Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked, “Is being born a woman so criminal an offense that we must be doomed to everlasting bondage?” For Iranian women, the answer, it seems, is yes.

Iran is, of course, highly restrictive when it comes to women’s attire, so the fact that Cady Stanton’s lament still rings true there is not surprising. Slightly less expected is the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has (ostensibly) taken up the mantle of Iranian dress reform himself. The Washington Post reports that Ahmadinejad wants to “settle” the dispute between Shiite Muslim clerics, who advise women to cloak themselves in black from head to toe, and Iran’s “urban fashionistas” who “increasingly prefer tight-fitting coats and scant head scarves.” The president’s, shall we say, “modest” proposal is to promote “government-approved apparel for women, garments intended to introduce an array of clothes that are ‘Islamic and beautiful’ at the same time.” Ahmadinejad launched his new spring line at an event where the mostly male panel of judges graded the outfits on their “functionality, design, and ‘Islamic-ness.’” The move is being hailed as a welcome step in the right direction by some Iranian women and criticized by hard-liners who see these ready-to-wear ensembles as evidence of the ways in which Western values are encroaching upon Iranian society.

Among the many ironies showcased in this picture of the event is the fact that the men who judge the “Islamic-ness” of Iranian women’s fashion choose for themselves a Western-style sport coat and open-collared dress shirt—avoiding the confines of even a necktie. But lest we be dazzled by the optimistically bright turquoise of Ahmadinejad’s signature coat, let’s remember that in a modern Iran, sexism is still in fashion.

The most visible women in this image are plastic—the faceless, voiceless mannequins aptly symbolize the position of women in Iran—with or without Ahmadinejad’s version of dress reform. Real women are relegated to the background, shrouded almost to the point of invisibility.

The men in this photo retain their ability to fondle women’s clothing and pass judgment on women’s appearance. More importantly, however, the photo demonstrates how easily Iranian men may congregate in public, express (at least some of) their opinions, and make decisions that exclusively affect women. If Iran’s male population is unwilling to allow women to choose their own clothes, what will it take for them to recognize women as full adults—much less as citizens. Ahmadinejad’s “compromise” is not a step in the right direction. It’s a step in the same direction.

In 19th-century Britain and the U.S., the dress reform movement was linked to other important causes of the progressive era—most directly woman suffrage and labor reform. For women to be able to enact full citizenship rights, they had to be freed from the literal strictures of corsets that constrained breathing and displaced vital organs. The women at the forefront of dress reform recognized that women who lacked control over what goes on their bodies would never exercise full rights over their bodies. As 19th century dress reformer Amelia Jenks Bloomer (yes—she popularized one alternative to the gut-wrenching corset) suggested, “When you find a burden in belief or apparel, cast it off.”

If only that were a realistic option for Iranian women.

– Karrin Anderson

(photo 1: Vahid Salemi/AP. caption: Two Iranian women, view a dressed mannequin, as they visit a women’s dress show, organized by the government, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. Under Iran’s strict Islamic regulations, women should cover themselves head to toe, a controversial point since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Women are allowed to show their faces. photos 2 – 4: modelebas.farhang.gov.ir — with slideshow.)

  • bks

    A woman in my high school was sent home for wearing jeans (c.1967), the next year several women were sent home for wearing miniskirts.  Then there was the kerfuffle when Hillary had the audacity to show some cleavage.   Thank goodness women in the USA are free of pressure to hew to the dictates of fashion.  My favorite momemt of the GOP debates was when Bachmann served her men at the faux-Thanksgiving table.   At least men get to choose whether to wear blue or grey suits.

        –bks

  • bks

    A woman in my high school was sent home for wearing jeans (c.1967), the next year several women were sent home for wearing miniskirts.  Then there was the kerfuffle when Hillary had the audacity to show some cleavage.   Thank goodness women in the USA are free of pressure to hew to the dictates of fashion.  My favorite momemt of the GOP debates was when Bachmann served her men at the faux-Thanksgiving table.   At least men get to choose whether to wear blue or grey suits.

        –bks

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=699726629 Dave McLane

    As BKS has already said, jeans and miniskirts or hints of cleavage with questionable in the US and it was such a BIG DEA that there were Back to the Victorian Age days at my high school. Thus I can’t help but wonder what Karrin Anderson would say about western women’s attire of the early 20th century which pretty much bundled them up.

    As for the current situation, if you come to where I live in Arizona, I suppose men can choose whether to wear blue or grey suits but they would be considered who-knows-what as I’ve never seen anybody in a suit in the 10 years I’ve lived here: there have been rumors that such a sight has been seen, but I’ve never seen it with my own two eyes. The usual/standard attire here starts with jeans or shorts and ends with boots or running shoes.

    I’m surprised that BagNews considered Anderson’s opinion news instead of a rant.

  • http://about.me/matthew.platte Matt Platte

    “…not a step in the right direction. It’s a step in the same direction”  
    A hint for Dave: it’s not about the clothes.

  • irannotiraq

    Iran, not Iraq. Ugh.

  • emily

    ” . . . women who lacked control over what goes on their bodies would never exercise full rights over their bodies”

    Perfectly stated.  Thanks for the thought-provoking piece (as always!).

  • Magpie

    Odd that in only one of those pictures does the mannequin have a head. Reflecting the lack of permission to think for themselves?

    • Karen H.

      Maybe I’m looking at it wrong, but it looks like the one that does have a head seems to have something over her eyes…

  • psychohistorian

    I would encourage you to look at the two real people in the picture.  

    The older one is stooped and her hair is entirely cover to the point of having a brim.   The other younger one is showing a band of hair, more upright and already not wearing the all black attire of old.

    Patriarchy is not dead but neither is feminism.  My hope is that they walk the fine line of feeling free to express themselves without buying into the marketing/sales driven patriarchy control part.

  • KVA

    Yes, I applaud the feminist consciousness of Iranian women. They know better than anyone, however, that they’re not free to express themselves whether they “buy into” the patriarchal sales pitch or not. Speaking of buying into the sales pitch . . .

  • KVA

    Yes, I applaud the feminist consciousness of Iranian women. They know better than anyone, however, that they’re not free to express themselves whether they “buy into” the patriarchal sales pitch or not. Speaking of buying into the sales pitch . . .

Refresh Archives

Random Notes