Jackie Ballard: Do women have more freedom in Iran or Britain?

'Maybe I would not have been described by a witty journalist as "having a good face for radio" '
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The Independent Online

"I suppose it could be worse; it could be Iraq or Afghanistan". That was the usual reaction from friends when, after losing my seat at the election, I told them that I was going on holiday to Iran to rest and recuperate.

"I suppose it could be worse; it could be Iraq or Afghanistan". That was the usual reaction from friends when, after losing my seat at the election, I told them that I was going on holiday to Iran to rest and recuperate.

I returned, happy and relaxed after a month away, but many people wondered how a liberal woman from Britain could be comfortable in a country where women, outside their own homes, are compelled to cover their bodies and their hair with either the all encompassing chador or a manteau (a shapeless long coat) and a headscarf.

Iran might be geographically close to Iraq and Afghanistan, but in other ways it could be a million miles away. It is a democracy, not governed by a mad dictator. Women are allowed to drive cars, own property and work, unsegregated, in a variety of jobs. Universities are mixed and half the students are female.

All of this I knew before I visited the country for the first time last year, but I still had a major psychological problem about having to wear Islamic dress. The coat wasn't a big deal in itself; after all, I wear coats in Britain. I usually wear trousers or jeans so my legs are seldom exposed to the outside world. But a headscarf? Please! The ultimate non-fashion accessory, worn only by Vera Duckworth in Coronation Street to cover her curlers.

It is not that I am particularly fashion conscious or over concerned about image. The problem was being told what I had to wear in public and not being able to express my individuality or even sexuality. You might ask what on earth was I, a chubby middle aged woman, doing even thinking of sexuality? It wasn't something I wanted to flout in Taunton High Street, so why in Tehran? Had I, too, been brainwashed by years of bombardment of media images of alluring women (even last month's Vogue was full of naked breasts)?

I wondered how anyone in Iran would see me as an individual, with my own thoughts and opinions if I had to wear the uniform of the crowd. A few visits to Iran later and my views have changed dramatically.

The women in Iran don't all look the same. There are, as anywhere else in the world, thin ones, fat ones, beautiful and ugly ones. They wear coats of different colours and lengths and even the headscarf can express individuality when it is worn daringly a long way back off the face. When a woman's shape is not so obvious and her flesh is not on display you notice and appreciate her face, and especially her eyes, much more.

The chador was a reaction against Western materialism and a symbol of Islamic values. Iran has changed a lot since 1979 and women have been pushing the boundaries of the dress code. On each of my visits I have seen many wearing make-up and many wearing only short coats over their trousers, but I have never seen anyone stopped by the police.

When I was in Jordan a few years ago, running a workshop for women, I noticed that some wore western style clothes and others wore the chador. There is no compulsion about clothing in Jordan so I asked the young women why they chose to cover themselves. The answer came as a surprise to someone who has read The Female Eunuch and Betty Friedan. They said it made them feel liberated. With the chador, they felt they were judged as the hospital administrator or the school secretary doing a professional job, not as attractive or unattractive women, as sex objects or harridans.

I wonder how the media might have treated Ann Widdecombe or Blair's so called 'babes' if all women MPs here wore the uniform of the chador. Perhaps then the women in Parliament would be taken more seriously as professional politicians doing a job, not as fat or thin women in grey or pink suits. Maybe then I would not have been described by some witty journalist as having 'a good face for radio' or be told by the late Auberon Waugh that I was 'too fat to be an MP'.

I can imagine liberal Independent readers, male and female, saying to themselves 'at least in Britain women can choose what to wear, they have a freedom denied to the women of Iran'. That's true, but I would ask you to put aside your prejudices and misconceptions for a moment and consider which woman has the most freedom. The one who can go about her life unmolested in public places, without wolf whistles or bottom pinching and without judgements about her size or shape influencing the perception of her ability to do her job? Or the one who is daily assaulted by images of half naked women selling cars or newspapers and who often succumbs to anorexia, bulimia or even plastic surgery to try to achieve the perceived western standard body shape, breast size or lip pout?

Perhaps it's time we looked again at our concept of freedom as I have my views about liberation, liberty and liberalism.


The writer is the former Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton