Lipstick revolution: Iran's women are taking on the mullahs

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It started with a switch from hijabs to Hermès headscarves. Now, after 30 years of Sharia law, the fight for women’s rights is gathering pace. Katherine Butler meets the Iranian rally drivers, bloggers and film-makers demanding change

Zohreh Vatankhah slides into the driving seat of her BMW X3, flicks a switch to some pulsating Persian pop and we're soon zipping along the narrow lanes near her home in northern Tehran, almost in the foothills of the snow-capped Alborz mountains. Most Iranians behave in traffic as if they are in charge of dodgems, not potentially lethal vehicles: the traffic is heart-stoppingly dangerous, but with this woman I can relax. A professional racing driver, she's used to competing, and winning, at speeds of up to 180mph.

She's glamorous, too, wearing high-heeled boots over her jeans (a controversial look in the eyes of the Iranian morality police) and a Rolex on her wrist. When she's not confounding stereotypes of Iranian women by beating men on the rally circuits, she's climbing mountains (she recently conquered Mount Damavand, the highest peak in the Middle East), or, here, in the axis of evil, sworn enemy of the United States, watching US (banned but tolerated) satellite TV channels; 24 is one of her favourite shows.

"I LOVE Barack Obama," she says, "and Michelle, she's so stylish and so smart."

At 31, Vatankhah was born a year before Iran's Islamic revolution. In February 1978, Tehran had nightclubs and dancing and girls-about-town who dressed as fashionably as their counterparts in Europe. A year later, the Shah had fled from his Peacock Throne; Iran was reborn as an Islamic Republic and women, many of whom supported the overthrow, were waking up to find their lives drastically changed. Not only obliged to cover up from head to toe, and banned from singing or performing in public to conform with Ayatollah Khomeini's narrow interpretation of Sharia law, they were also, as Shirin Ebadi, Nobel prize winner and Iran's first woman judge, found to her cost, sidelined from senior jobs. Women, "too emotional", were no longer employed as judges.

The woman in the driving seat next to me looks anything but downtrodden. Yet, the tension between modernity and tradition that weighs heavily on women's lives in Iran is never far away. At one point she leans over to say: "Please, your scarf," when the bothersome piece of cloth on my head slips down.

But then something happens that could be a metaphor for the revolution that may be quietly taking place in contemporary Iran. Our drive stalls when an irate male motorist, assuming she's trying to enter a one-way road, hogs the intersection and waves at her to go back. Vatankhah doesn't budge – she knows she's in the right. She holds her ground, presses on, but when he passes he shouts an obscenity. She rolls down her window calmly and tells him whatever the Farsi equivalent is of shut up and get a life.

Iranian women, and not just the sporting queens or Nobel prize winners, are standing up to the mullahs. And some of them are experiencing a frightening political backlash.

On our journey downtown, we pass within sight of a forbidding-looking building set back from the road, framed by the mountains, a reminder that we're in a country with an extraordinary recent history. This is Evin prison, Iran's biggest and most notorious jail, where unknown numbers of political prisoners are held.

This month, a woman called Alieh Egham Doost began serving a three-year jail sentence in Evin. Her crime was to attend a peaceful women's rights protest three years ago. Dozens of other women have been arrested and sentenced on similar charges, but Egham Doost is the first to be actually put behind bars. Her jailing has caused alarm abroad and raised suspicion that a crackdown on the nascent Iranian women's movement is under way, and that more women like Egham Doost could be thrown into the high-security cells.

Parvin Ardalan, a 39 year old Tehran journalist, could be one. She helped to set up a campaign with the aim of gathering one million signatures petitioning for a fairer deal for women under the law. Despite winning Sweden's Olof Palme human rights prize last year, she has been convicted by the revolutionary courts of "acting against national security". Now, she waits at home for the knock on the door. If her appeal fails, she will be serving six months in Evin prison.

"It was awful. We were five or six to a cell" she says of a brief spell on remand in Evin when she was first arrested. Thousands of "enemies" of the revolution were incarcerated and executed in the same prison in the early 1980s; Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer as well as Nobel prize winner, was jailed here, and Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photojournalist was so badly beaten up after being taken into custody at Evin that she died of her injuries. Ardalan's passport has been confiscated to stop her travelling. "There's no point in being scared," she says, in a matter-of-fact tone.

Iranians have "a fantastic talent for waiting" wrote Ryszard Kapuscinski in Shah of Shahs, his account of the 1979 revolution. "They can turn to stone and remain motionless for ever". And Iranian women have certainly shown extraordinary forbearance. It took 27 years after the Islamic regime was installed before they staged that first public demonstration in 2006. Police reacted by beating and arresting dozens of them. So Ardalan and a few others decided to change tactics. Now they fan out in ones and twos, to small towns and villages, going into shops, beauty salons, schools and offices, or stand at bus stops explaining "face to face" how the Iranian interpretation of Sharia law is stacked against half the population. They ask men and women to sign their petition. Those who refuse are asked to take a leaflet detailing the manifold forms of legal discrimination.

It explains, how, for example, a man can divorce on a whim, while a woman has to jump through hoops – and then custody of children over seven routinely goes to the husband; a woman can to be stoned to death for committing adultery, whereas a man can have up to four wives and any number of "temporary" wives; a 13-year-old girl can be condemned as a criminal but the age of legal responsibility for a boy is 15; a woman's life is deemed to be worth only half of that of a man or a boy. No woman can stand for the presidency. A woman must cover her head and body at all times in public, and if she refuses can be punished, sometimes in seventh-century fashion, by flogging.

Sitting next to Vatankhah in her $80,000 car, as she tells me about her new penthouse, the unfair laws certainly seem academic. She enjoys a fun-filled life and seems to have everything she wants within the limitations of Iran's global isolation. But the rich, like Vatankhah, have to find ways around the curbs on their freedom. She chose motorsports partly because so many other internationally competitive sports are off-limits to women. "I wouldn't like to try for swimming competitions in Iran. There's some sort of dress you have to wear". A Manchester United fan, she can only dream about ever seeing a real match. It is another of the petty strictures on women that in football-crazy Iran, women are banned from soccer stadiums.

When South Korea played Iran for a world cup qualifying match earlier this month, a small group of Iranian women football fans stood forlornly outside Tehran's Azadi stadium and handed Korean women (who were allowed in) a letter which read. "Dear Korean sisters, Could you please shout once, just once, for us in support of IRAN? Would you do it for us, sisters? While you are screaming, shouting, clapping for your team, we are prisoners in our homes, behind a damn television screen. We have to kill the scream in our throats; we just cry, even when we are happy, because our footballers cannot hear us encouraging them."

The headscarf – compulsory from the age of nine for any woman living in Iran or visiting the country – is the most obvious manifestation of how Iranian women are kept in check. The rules demand, too, that women wear clothes to conceal the natural shape of the body. These elements combine to produce hijab – a concept of modesty as much as actual garments. However, the compulsion to wear such coverings is not the biggest worry for Iran's feminists, explains Parvin Ardalan. That is because the hijab has become, in effect, the symbol of the revolution. Attacking it could lay the women open to charges of political activism aimed at toppling the regime.

In any case, most now appear resigned to covering up. "It's like a part of your body. It feels the same as your jeans feel on your legs," Afsaneh Ahmadi, Zohreh Vatankhah's friend and navigator told me.

To the Western visitor, a compulsory scarf around your head morning to night feels like anything but a part of your body. In Iran's overheated hotels and airports it becomes especially trying. It gets in the way when speaking on a mobile phone. Even some Iranian men find it oppressive. "It makes us feel like beasts," one confided, "as if we wouldn't be able to control our urges."

There is enough repression in the system to prevent open defiance of the hijab rule, but it should perhaps be more worrying for the authorities that many women wear their scarves and modest attire with so little conviction. Two middle-aged figures in black chadors (long cloaks that include head covering), the most severe form of hijab, stood as if on guard at Mehrabad airport as we returned on a domestic flight one day during my stay. "Welcome to Tehran" they announced in Farsi. The real purpose of these sentries, I was later told, was to prevent "bad hijab" among incoming female passengers.

But out in the streets, affluent north Tehrani princesses stay just within the law, while affirming nothing about their commitment to the values of the Islamic revolution. The resulting look can be sexy, if more Fifties-housewife than Angelina Jolie. The scarf, often Hermès and in bright colours, is knotted under the chin, and tilted back at a flattering angle to show a broad band of hair. Blonde highlights, beehives and carefully coiffed fringes seem hot this season. Huge sunglasses pushed up on the head, and a short, tight-fitting belted coat over narrow jeans complete the look. "It signals that we obey the law, but nothing more than that," remarks Ardalan.

Since eyes, nose and hands are the only features on show, eye make-up is applied with scientific precision – and Tehran has become the nose-job capital of the world, with 70,000 rhinoplasty operations a year. I lost count of the numbers of women I saw with post-operative plasters stuck on their noses like starfish. Women are also having tattoos done in increasing numbers, "on the stomach and other places", as one young Tehrani told me.

Appearance, then, is every bit as important as in the West, which is not exactly what the Islamic revolutionaries had in mind back in 1979. In the early years, red lipstick was "an insult to the blood of the martyrs". For men, too, the cadres of the revolution were discouraged from wearing ties (too Western, too reminiscent of the Shah). Many took to wearing plastic sandals to demonstrate their revolutionary credentials. For women, it seems, the clerics wanted the public space free of any trace of overt femininity.

Satellite dishes have put the nail in that coffin. Upper-class Persians were always stylish, but watching shows like Sex and the City or the music videos of Lebanese superstar Nancy Ajram has given women of all backgrounds an eye for fashion and fitness. Even this has its complications.

At the vast and impressively equipped Enghelab sports complex, formerly the Imperial Country Club, a playground for the Shah and his royal entourage, Marjun Massoudi trots in front of me at a brisk pace along a superb "health road" busy with joggers and walkers. She makes a left turn, and we find ourselves at the edge of a fairway on Iran's only golf club which, despite having only 12 holes, has 3,000 members, many of them women.

Disappointingly, there's nobody teeing off, as I had been curious to see how to swing a club in a chador. But Marjun assures me golf is ideally suited to the Islamic dress code.

Huge efforts go into maintaining sexual apartheid in sport, although I notice at the rifle range two girls in headscarves and slim-fitting "manteaus" are taking lessons from a man. Marjun issues me with a swimsuit in case I want to come use one of the women-only swimming pools. Cut low on the thigh area with bulky bra pads, it's not exactly Edwardian, but still pretty modest given that there would be zero chance of being seen by a member of the opposite sex. No wonder home fitness DVDs are so popular here.

There are women who profess to be entirely happy with the status quo. A dozen or so of them spoke at a women's round table organised by the Iranian foreign ministry. "In the name of God the merciful the most compassionate..." each of the speakers began her contribution, a reminder that Iran is, first and foremost, a theocracy. Every woman in the room, apart from a member of the Jewish community, had an ankle-length chador and a head covering that blocked out every wisp of hair. All were highly educated and held senior positions: there was a judge, an agricultural scientist, several university lecturers and academics.

Far from subjugating women, the Islamic revolution elevated them in the family, they claimed, and female life expectancy has gone to 75 years from 58 before 1979. Rather, it was in "liberal democracies" that women were oppressed. "I have seen myself in some countries women are cleaning the streets," one speaker said, "They choose these jobs so that they can say they have equality. We don't think like this."

The physical punishments we found barbaric were merely "theoretical". "You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of stonings carried out in Iran in the past 10 years," said Fa'eze Bodaghi, a lawyer and judge. And floggings? "Physical punishment might look harsh, but it is immediate," she said, adding that Iranian law is quite often "misunderstood". "I don't want to say there is no problem. Inheritance laws [a widow is entitled to only one eighth of her husband's wealth], for example, are under review. But generally I think these women collecting signatures are after Western human rights standards, and we don't think that can work in Iran."

Afterwards, I share a taxi with Farzaneh Abdolmaleki, a senior civil servant. "We don't believe in gender equality, you see," she tells me, shaking her head. "The family is what matters and we all have different roles in the family."

Even if these women wanted a different set-up, they would be fairly powerless to do much about it, despite their relatively privileged positions, since it is men who make and interpret the law. There are, of course, competing factions within Iranian politics, some more secular-minded than others, and reforms have at least allowed women back into the judiciary. But there are still only eight female MPs out of 290, and real power is wielded by the Guardian Council, an unelected body of clerics who can veto any proposed legal change they deem to be unconstitutional.

In the official narrative of Iran, the self-styled superpower, there is scant room for public dissent. In this Iran, there are no disgruntled women, only fulfilled mothers, daughters, wives. "These rumours are just hoaxes got up by foreign enemies," Zahra Mostafavi Khomeini, the daughter of Ayatollah Khomeini retorted when I asked her what she thought of Alieh Egham Doost and the jailing of the activists. Her father, the man who inspired the Islamic revolution, was a champion of fairness for women, she added. "He wanted women to play a full part in society, not just as typists or nurses. At home, he never asked his wife, even once, 'give me a cup of tea', or 'close the door'. He did it himself!".

Attitudes among some Iranian men are less enlightened. One writer and his wife were horrified when they learnt that a friend whose kebab restaurant had run into financial difficulties was pressurising his wife to sell one of her kidneys.

Why the dogmatists among Iran's clerics and politicians should be so eager to gag those women who are not even challenging the Islamic system of government, but merely articulating fairly modest demands for parity within the Sharia legal code, is in some ways puzzling. They must have seen it coming. In the 30 years since the revolution, women have flocked to schools and colleges, literacy rates have rocketed and birth-control programmes have freed them from big families.

The result is that degree and PhD courses are crammed with young women who in earlier generations would have been in rural villages weaving carpets, married off at the age of 13, unable to read or write (two thirds of Iranian women were illiterate in 1979) because their fathers would not countenance them sharing classes with men. By imposing a strict dress code, the revolution opened up higher education to women. Now nearly 70 per cent of university intake is female. Millions of high-achieving Iranian women are now postponing marriage or seeking divorces from husbands they outrank intellectually, while waking up to the cultural and legal obstacles they face.

Parvin Ardalan is adamant that the signatures campaign is entirely compatible with Islam, and has no political agenda. If anything, the women want to challenge patriarchal attitudes that have nothing to do with religion. "We're not out to seize power. I don't need power to achieve what we want. We want change, but without regime change. We have no interest in being a political opposition movement."

But reformists in Iran have been pushed into the background since 2005, and the hardliners know just how potent, and ultimately dangerous, a grassroots movement, such as the women's campaign, could prove. More so, since it hasn't spawned among the usual ranks, the clergy or the merchant classes, but rather in the universities, the legal profession and the blogosphere (women run many of the 70,000 Farsi language blogs that have sprouted in Iran).

If the feminists wanted to tap into a groundswell, the numbers are there: half of Iran's 34.6 million women are under 25. Many young people are more interested in flouting the strictures on dating by swapping mobile numbers with boys, or attending vodka-fuelled "gatherings" in private homes, than in fighting the women's corner. But others like Maryam and Tahminah, a devout-looking pair of students in chadors I bumped into at a museum, told me some of their friends didn't believe in God, want a lot more freedom and spend much of their time on Facebook. "Everyone has anti-filter," Tahminah laughed, when I asked about internet censorship.

After the women's conference, I take a taxi to the offices of Katayoon Shahabi, 43, who against all the odds has set up her own film production company and is a regular at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals. Over tea and dates she describes some of the battles she had to fight when she worked for the state: "I had no authority to sign letters and they fretted over whether I would have to shake a man's hand if I went on a delegation to the West." (Even touching the hand of a man you're not married to is forbidden.)

But Iran's complexities and contradictions are never-ending, as Shahabi reminds me. Its women are typically matriarchal characters, self-confident, pushy and seem uniquely ill-suited to being cowed into conformity. And its men, she pleads, are not particularly macho. That's when I recalled it was Zohreh Vatankhah, the daredevil racer, who had spoken excitedly about her forthcoming pilgrimage to Karbala, in Iraq, the holiest shrine for Shia Muslims, how she keeps a copy of the Koran in her glove compartment, and has been to Mecca twice. Go figure, as an American might say.

The film producer is pragmatic; perhaps she has to be if she is to stay within Iran's "red lines" and keep her annually renewable business licence. She praises Ardalan's campaign, but won't be signing the petition. Why not? "In Iran, direct confrontation doesn't work. I protest in my own way. All the films I work with are about the condition of women," she says, citing the furore caused by Red Card, Mahnaz Afzali's film about an Iranian sentenced to death for murdering the wife of her football coach lover.

Open criticism, meanwhile, is left to the daughters of the mullahs. Faezeh Rafsanjani, outspoken daughter of ex-president and cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has assailed the law that gives a woman's life only half the value of a man's, while a liberal granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini is open about her support for the petition.

That campaign may now be crushed if Ardalan and the other women are jailed. But Iran is also approaching a fork in the road. Economic stagnation and chronic unemployment means there is a growing impatience with the current hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Elections in June could see him replaced by the reformist Mohamed Khatami, and dialogue with the US is on the horizon.

If the thaw comes, it could intensify the internal pressure for the sexual revolution in Iran. Could that pressure in turn be the spark that ignites the one thing the mullahs dread: a velvet revolution? That fear is perhaps why they are cracking down so hard on the women. "They feel very threatened," says one analyst, "When it is just one woman, like Shirin Ebadi, they can contain it, but the idea of a mighty popular force rising up to challenge them, that is something they could not control."

But curiously, it is not only the mullahs who are fearful of insurrectionist talk. "The experience of revolution showed us that women were not necessarily the winners from violent change," says Ardalan, "We need to take one step at a time". Katayoon Shahabi agrees: "We saw the revolution and we saw war. We know that sudden change is not Iran's solution. But things are moving, like a river. And rivers, as you know, are unstoppable."

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