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Maybe Iran's Women Really Can Cause An Earthquake

Women come to the aid of a man being beaten during election protests last June.
Women come to the aid of a man being beaten during election protests last June.
I wasn't surprised when I read the comments by Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi in which he claimed that women who don't dress modestly lead men astray and even cause earthquakes. In fact, I was amused, thinking he was being unusually imaginative in his reasoning.

But I wasn't surprised. After all, I grew up in postrevolutionary Iran, and we used to find statements similar to Sedighi's on state television and in state-controlled newspapers all the time.

I clearly remember how the hijab became obligatory soon after the revolution, ostensibly to help girls and women protect "their chastity," as well as to shield them from all the evil in society. They told us again and again how the hijab was for our benefit and how it somehow made us valuable.

I remember watching television as a child and hearing a cleric explain in very serious terms how women's hair sent special rays directly into men's eyes, making them lustful. He was trying to explain to us why we had to cover ourselves even during the hottest days of summer.

Odd Science Fiction

Although I was very young, his words struck me as some sort of odd science fiction. Even if the story of the rays was true, why did I and my mother, sisters, and friends have to "protect" ourselves? Maybe it would make more sense for the clerics to force horny men to wear dark glasses?

They told us that the hijab was a gift from God that would preserve us as “untouched pearls.” We heard lots of beautiful phrases like that.
At first, I just thought it was unfair. Later, though, I came to understand that all this was just a reflection of a basic truth in revolutionary Iran. Women are not protected; women are not valuable. Women are second-class citizens, despite all the rhetoric about how women are granted elevated status in Islam and how the Prophet Muhammad loved and cared for women, including his several wives.

We were told that being a good wife and a good mother were the only achievements that mattered for us. Our schoolbooks depicted men out fighting and engaging in adventures of all sorts, while women and girls sat at home, ironing their hijabs and waiting for their men to come home. And, of course, when they got there, the house would be clean, dinner would be on the table, and there'd be a smile on every face.

They told us the hijab was a gift from God that would preserve us as "untouched pearls." We heard lots of beautiful phrases like that.

Many of my friends and I did not buy this line. All we wanted was to get rid of the hijab and dress like the girls we saw in Western media. We knew that some women welcomed the hijab and wanted to cover themselves, and we respected that choice. But we wanted to make our own choice.

Almost every Friday, clerics of Sedighi's ilk would go to great lengths to praise the good women who covered themselves from head to toe. And they would warn against those who refused to do so, accusing them of causing the many ills of Iranian society. It was only a matter of time before they got around to earthquakes.

No, I wasn't surprised.

Emerge Again

In recent days people have been posting a video of a cleric leading Friday Prayers in Mashhad, claiming that he said that women who wear makeup will be eaten by reptiles (what would Freud say?). I watched the video and he didn’t actually say that, but he made similar comments just like the ones we've been hearing all our lives.

And despite this constant haranguing, despite the 31 years that have passed since the revolution, despite the fearsome Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij militia, the mighty Islamic republic has been unable to compel women completely to wear the hijab. From time to time, the authorities will begin detaining "improperly dressed" women. They will harass them on the streets and even flog them. They will lecture them will all sorts of bizarre reasons why women must respect the hijab.

But within a few days, women again emerge on the streets with very small and colorful headscarves perched atop their highlighted hair. They wear makeup and short, tight manteaus.

So the authorities keep trying. One Friday, women cause earthquakes. The next Friday, it will be something worse.

All these statements say to me is that the authorities are afraid of these women who they have not been able to control after decades of trying. Women now make up more than 60 percent of Iranian university entrants. And more and more of them are showing that they will not accept second-class status, that they will stand up for their rights.

Maybe Sedighi said more than he knew. Iranian women are capable of causing an earthquake -- one that is shaking all those who insist on keeping women under the chador and at home.

Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.