In 2009 Jimmy Carter wrote an article titled, Losing My Religion for Equality.  I’ve read it before but today it showed up in my Facebook newsfeed. I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook – don’t we all – but today I was thankful to have a second opportunity to read this heartfelt piece. In essence, President Carter broke ties with his church over equal rights for women.  If you haven’t yet read his words, I encourage you to do so.  There is one particular passage I find especially relevant.

“It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.”  Jimmy Carter

The Strength of Women

The women in Iran are amazingly strong.  They are beautiful in mind and body, and I agree with President Carter’s words; they are at the forefront of the call for change.

Imagine being old enough to have lived under the Shah’s reign when women were free to dress as they liked, date whomever they liked and generally lived with the freedom of personal choice.  Then came the revolution and suddenly life as they knew it came to a screeching halt.  Religious doctrine once again ruled the land and women were taken back to living under the cover of the hijab.  I cannot even fathom the disruption to life as they knew it.

I love this photo, such a contrast of old and new.

I love this photo, such a contrast of old and new.

Standing Out in a Crowd

As a foreign woman I was given some slack when it came to the hijab.  Of this I am certain.  As long as they (morality police) saw that I was respecting their moral code with a head scarf and my front/backside was covered, I was good to go.  And believe me, I pushed it as far as I could. We have a strikingly lovely niece who carries herself with such grace and dignity and twice, on one particular outing, she was told to adjust her hijab, while I barely kept my scarf on my head.  More than anything I believe she was noticed because she carried herself with such confidence she stood out in the crowd.

I wore this outfit pretty much every day while in Iran. The tunic was long and modest enough for a foreign woman, and cool enough for the warm weather.

I wore this outfit pretty much every day while in Iran. The tunic was long and modest enough for a foreign woman, and cool enough for the warm weather.

A Powerful Statement

As we entered the grand mosque in Iman Square in Isfahan, our two nieces were handed chadors to wear, but as a foreign woman I was not.  The husbands of said nieces expressed their frustration but it fell on deaf ears.  Once inside though the girls dropped the chadors and carried on.  It may not seem like much, but it was a powerful unspoken statement.

Iman Square - UNESCO World Heritage site - the grand mosque.

Iman Square – UNESCO World Heritage site – the grand mosque.

Although they are a long way from equality, women in Iran in comparison to other Islamic nations, have an important presence in society.  Iranian women go out on their own, they drive cars – machines, as they are called in Iran – and some even drive taxis.  They are university educated, they are employed, they vote, they marry and they divorce.  They are talented artists, they are skilled nurses and doctors, and they are the matriarchs of their families.

Ruled by Religious Doctrine

Our 3 weeks in Iran was my first time visiting a country ruled by religious doctrine and I admit to being nervous. Living in a democratic society I am guilty of taking certain freedoms for granted and as such I struggled with the societal expectations put on women in Iran.  When we went to a restaurant and Abi removed his jacket because it was warm, I scoffed because I could not take off my sweater and scarf. It was irritatingly unfair and I grew to despise the scarf I wore.  At the end of the 3 weeks though I took it off, something Iranian women cannot do.

The Power of Individuality

Women in Iran find ways to empower their individuality by coloring their hair, wearing (a lot of) make-up and embracing a strong sense of style. While out and about it’s not unusual to see older women comfortably wearing the long black chador, while young woman sport blonde hair and vibrant colors.

Blonde hair and vibrant colors.

Blonde hair and vibrant colors.

And they have nose jobs, so many nose jobs.  The tell-tale bandaged noses can be seen all over Iran, and not just on women.

The tell-tale bandage.

The tell-tale bandage.

Road Trip

We took a 5-day road trip while in Iran and everywhere we went, people stared at me.  At first I thought it was because of the way I was dressed.  Then I thought they were a bit rude. But then I realized it was just out of curiosity. So, instead of averting my eyes I met their stares, smiled and said, “Hello” and the reaction was heartwarming.

Time and time again, young girls, young women and mothers alike would timidly approach me.  They asked where I was from, did I like Iran and could they take their picture with me.  They were incredibly sweet and genuinely pleased when I obliged.  I never said, “No.”  It was my teeny tiny way of extending the olive branch.  These are the faces of Iran.

This sweet young woman just wanted to say hello and take a picture with me.

This sweet young woman just wanted to say hello and take a picture with me.

The mother of these children asked if I would stand with her children. She told us her daughter had never seen an American woman and she was so excited to meet me.

The mother of these children asked if I would stand with her children. She told us her daughter had never seen an American woman and she was so excited to meet me.  Clearly, little brother was less than impressed.

The Women of Iran

What I learned while in Iran is that it’s complicated.   It’s a society trying to balance religious doctrine with the fast-paced forward-moving 21st century.  It’s so easy, isn’t it, to stereotype; to portray Iranian women as shrouded figures in flowing black robes, with very few rights.  If we buy into the negative hype we can justify just about anything, right?  But the truth is, women in Iran are finding their way and they are not only making powerful statements of individuality, they are working toward the greater good; equality for women.  They are in fact at the forefront of the call for change.

This is the 3rd post in our Putting a Face on Iran series.

To read more about the power of Iranian women:

Iran to Appoint First Female Ambassador

Iranian Woman Wins Rights Award

Iranian Women Unpack Their Makeup Bags

The Complicated Beauty of the Persian Nose

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