Friday, August 29, 2014

Persian Letters

Ashton's Wardrobe Diplomacy With Iran Gets Noticed

The genuine article, of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton after the meeting in Baghdad on May 24
The genuine article, of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton after the meeting in Baghdad on May 24
While the eyes of many pundits, policymakers, journalists, and Iranian citizens were glued to reports emerging from this week's nuclear talks in Baghdad, some Iranians were focusing their attention on what European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led the meetings on behalf of the 5+1 group, was wearing.

Their jest that Ashton might turn up in a black chador on the second day of talks didn’t materialize. Instead, the EU leader wore a demure brown top that showed little of her neckline.

Iranian media and followers of social media have suggested that Ashton was dressing more conservatively than at her last meeting with Iranian authorities, in Geneva last year.

In photographs from those talks with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, Ashton is wearing a black blouse that is apparently too revealing for Iranian newspapers. They retouched the picture, raising the neckline to make it acceptable for the official standards of the Islamic republic.

The practice is common among Iranian newspapers to avoid trouble and possible warning and closure by authorities.
Spot the fake, courtesy of the fake, courtesy of
Spot the fake, courtesy of
Spot the fake, courtesy of

Then, during last month's nuclear talks in Istanbul, Ashton was seen in official pictures next to Jalili wearing a black suit with a white scarf tucked around her neck.

That brought praise from Iran’s state television, which suggested that Ashton had made an effort to respect a “special” dress code in her meetings with Iranian officials.

The scarf was also noticed by Iranian news sites, including the conservative “Tabnak,” which said her appearance showed that Ashton respects the customs and traditions of Iran. “In fact, Ashton’s move was a positive step which demonstrated that the status of the Islamic republic is important for her and the West,” the site's editors commented.

During this week's round of talks in the Iraqi capital, Ashton went a step further. For her first day of meetings with Jalili, she wore a long, burgundy-colored jacket with a tight collar -- the kind of thing she could easily wear on the streets of Tehran (with the addition of a scarf to cover her hair) without getting arrested by the morality police.

The conservative outfit prompted some observers to predict wryly that for the second day of talks with Jalili, Ashton would turn up in a black chador -- the cloak that covers the entire body and that Iranian officials consider the most preferable type of hijab.

“Is Ashton becoming a Chadori?” asked one Iranian on Facebook. Another person wrote that Ashton would be welcomed in the city of Qom, which is home to religious seminaries and senior clerics.
Not genuine, obviously, since Jalili hates charcoal.Not genuine, obviously, since Jalili hates charcoal.
Not genuine, obviously, since Jalili hates charcoal.
Not genuine, obviously, since Jalili hates charcoal.

Male-female relations are a delicate matter in Iran, where diplomats and officials generally don't shake the hands of their female counterparts. Under Islamic guidelines as they are enforced in Iran, men and women who are not related cannot shake hands and should also avoid prolonged eye contact. Some Iranian officials and conservatives don’t even look at a woman’s face while talking to them.

Ashton is trying to avoid offending Iranians officials, lest her attire take the focus off the business at hand, says a London-based former Iranian diplomat, Mehrdad Khonsari.

“Westerners, particularly Ashton, pay attention to the [sensitivities] of Iranian officials so that there is no excuse for things to go wrong and the main issue to go off track,” Khonsari says.

Ashton appears to have succeeded on all counts in Baghdad.

She announced on May 24 that a new round of talks between Iran and world powers would be held in June in Moscow on June 18-19. "Iran declared its readiness to address of issue of 20-percent [uranium] enrichment and came with its own five-point plan, including their assertion that we recognize their right to enrichment," she said after the meetings.

Unprecedentedly tough international sanctions and the threat of military strikes are being credited with bringing Iran back to the negotiating table.

It’s unclear to what extent, if any, Ashton’s dress diplomacy has helped keep negotiations alive.

But one thing is clear: In the upcoming Moscow talks, her décolletage -- or lack thereof -- will again take center stage.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Anonymous
May 25, 2012 10:17
I hope that the Iranians will respect our culture and traditions by letting their women wear what they want when and if they get permission by their male relatives to visit our lands.
In Response

by: Darius from: Tehran
May 26, 2012 20:51
You are certainly not the sharpest tool in the box, didn't the sentence "Their jest that Ashton might turn up in a black chador on the second day of talks didn’t materialize." give any hint's what regular Iranians think? You don't think that hinted that we regular Iranians find ridiculous that she is appeasing the tyrant mullas and their "values"? But yet you went with the bigoted "if and when they allowed by their male relatives." comment. That comment is more beffiting your beloved arab allies in saudi, not Iranian women, they are more educated than yours and have strong position in our society, even with the barbaric mulla regime. Thats the difference between you and us, our population is highly educated, we speak multiple languages etc..and soon this inbreed fundamentalist will be kicked from our country, but you will remain ignorant forever by your own choice. Freedom is wasted on you.

by: Javad from: London
May 25, 2012 13:08
This is trival talk and tittle-tatte. Ashton chose a dress befitting the talks in a country where its people, in spite of what Westerners may think, have strong religious affiliation. A revealing dress would have been no more than a bad taste and disrespect to cultural and religious environment of the host country. What is all this news blog about? Don't you have better things to do ? Or do think you are amuzing your readers ?

by: Jay from: MD
May 25, 2012 14:53
Very interesting. It shows the length the clerical establishment can go to claim how much others respect its values.

by: an Iranian
May 25, 2012 15:59
See this:
Another official praising Mrs. Ashton's dress.

by: Rob
May 26, 2012 01:33
Let's hope Ashton's wardrobe diplomacy will prevent a war with Iran. She should be actually praised for being culturally sensitive, and respecting the other side. That's what diplomacy is about.

by: Saied from: Green Bay, WI USA
May 26, 2012 22:28
So representatives of western countries are meeting with negotiators of the Islamic Republic of gender apartheid. An opportunity for Ashton to demonstrate how it is none of Jalili's business as to how she or for that matter any woman chooses to dress. Instead Ashton capitulates to the hegemony of Islamic gender bigotry. Shame on you Ashton. You should have read about the struggle of Iranian women for freedom. You should have learned how brave "shirzanane" Iran stand up to this regime's attempts to control them. May be someone needs to tell Ashton about Farrokhrooy Parsa who stood up for her rights and the rights of all women to dress as they wish even at the cost of her life. Maybe someone should have informed Ashton of the great ongoing struggle for Women's rights in Iran. The million signature movement etc. etc. Instead Ashton abandons her own traditions of Western civilization with respect to gender equality to appease the hegemonic demands of the Iranian regime's gender oppression. Ashton missed a rare opportunity to show the Iranian regime that their gender apartheid will not be accepted or accomodated in the world. Shame on you Ashton. Mabye this is a reflection of what is fundamentally flawed about these negotioations to begin with. The west meeting with the bloody tyrants of the murderous regime in Iran chasing a meaningless deadend of a negotiated settlement. They would be wise to remember this is a regime that kills its own children. How will it honor its covenants with the west given how it honors its covenants with its own people? Ashton's dress choice is not cultural sensitivity it is cultural capitulation. How is she set up for the remainder of the discussion when at the door she gave up on the core principles of equality, justice, and liberty? Shame on you

by: Mary from: New Zealand
May 29, 2012 09:08
even though the previous post makes good points to help advocate for women's equality, it takes time and patience for people to change their ways/ideas. Attempting to go head to head and appear disrespectful to another culture/country is exactly the attitude that could trigger the misuse of nuclear weapons. The goal of this meeting was "to discuss nuclear weapons, in hope to prevent the use of them". Ashton is visiting their country, they are not visiting her country. Just as when you visit someones house(a family/country), you respect their traditions/religion eg. if they don't wear shoes inside. She was humble to respect that an open chest area is too revealing for their newspapers (their culture) to publish. Plus it takes time for people to adjust to new ideas, eg. Women of Iran want to dress how they choose. Just as the issue of equal gay rights has taken many many years for people to be more open to hearing and now respecting more. With all due respect to the US and the good it does to help other countries in need. It was proven in the 911 commission after the attacks that one factor for the motive was it was felt the US had been too imposing at times in other countries business (I'm not sure all the details), however I know when US troops disrespect other cultures and eg. pee on their troops or wear shoes when a guest in a home, that is considered a sin in their culture, that is considered imposing/arrogant and is going to bread hate. Just as eg if someones judges/is arrogant towards those that are gay or have special needs. It's so impt to be culturally sensitive to different backgrounds we all have. All effective negotiations require humility and respect to find middle ground (just like in any marriage when two people with different upbringings come together). I completely agree with the previous quote "Let's hope Ashton's wardrobe diplomacy will prevent a war with Iran. She should be actually praised for being culturally sensitive, and respecting the other side. That's what diplomacy is about." Remember the quote, you have to pick your battles if you want to win the war. She showed humility not arrogance in a culture (that as mentioned in the article) Men don't usually shake hands with women unless they are married, or look in the eyes of women. This is a HUGE step forward that Ashton is even able to be at the negotiating table that could help save billions of lives if there are peaceful negotiations over nuclear weapons. Women are generally better communicators than Men during disagreements, and so hopefully this is also a step fwd for Iran to honor Ashton and Women more for their effective negotiating skills (to prevent a power struggle). I think Catherine Ashton is an amazing lady and along side Hillary Clinton their actions/work experience helps advocate more to the world the unique qualities of women and very senior positions they can also hold in politics/business etc, without them being arrogant/disrespectful/imposing in the process. The roles of Women and Men roles have been ingrained in their culture, their belief system for many centuries, it takes patience and a united support by the women of Iran to advocate for their wishes to dress more liberally.
In Response

by: Arab banker from: Duabi banks
May 29, 2012 10:02
how did you write this longest comment ? why are you work free for RFERL ? Rferl must paid to commenters, for every word = 1 cent. Hey Radio free ! do you ?
In Response

by: Saied Assef from: Green Bay Wisconsin
May 30, 2012 20:14
your comments are full of assertions that are based on incorrect and orientalist assumptions. Generalizations that you have made about "the roles of women and men been ingrained in their culture and belief systems etc. etc. " clearly demonstrate that you are quite naive about this issue and know nothing of Iranian society and are prone to stereotypes that are ill informed. Unfortunately we see this quiet commonly in the west - a double standard of accepting bigotry, subjugation, and gender apartheid for Iran because that is "their culture". You could not be more wrong. If you knew anything about Iranian history, culture, and political struggle you would not make these clearly bigotted comments and you would not be willing to accept for Iranians what you clearly would not accept for yourself. This is what my comments were pointing out. Unfortunately you have falle in the same trap that Ashton fell into: in the name of cultural sensitivity you have suspended your own sense of wright and wrong. You have defined two different standards of equality, justice, and liberty. One that is good for you the other good for them because it is their culture. When and where did you conclude that gender apartheid is acceptable to Iranian culture. You supposed diversity embrcing culturally sensitive Westerners make the struggle for liberty in Iran that much more difficult. I just wish that you would take the time to undrestand us, undrestand our struggles. We are human beings just like you, deserving of human rights just like you. It is not my culture that my mother my sister should suffer inhumane denegration because they don't want to wear a hijab which by the way they didn't have to wear for most of the twentieth century. It is not my culture for half of the human potential of Iran to be ignore, and effectively shut out of public life. Your cultural sensitiviy is cultural capitulation and it make me sick.

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Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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